ISET Economist Blog

When More Is Less: Values and Europe's Declining Fertility Rates
Friday, 01 May, 2015

Judging by Georgia’s average birth rate, it clearly belongs into the European family of nations. At 1.82 children per woman, according to the latest data, the Georgian nation is below (but still relatively close to) 2.1, the birth rate at which the population size remains steady. On average, the birthrate in Europe is around 1.5, which is significantly lower than it was only fifty years ago. With the exception of Scandinavian countries, Turkey and France (Europe’s demographic “leaders”, with around 2.1 births per woman), all other European nations, both rich and poor, see their overall birthrates decline at an alarming pace.

Still, some surprising trends can be observed.


While income, measured as GDP per capita, and higher fertility rates in general seem to be positively related, the relationship is not as clear when different groups of countries are examined.

In countries that are traditionally considered Eastern European, almost no effect of an increase in per capita income on fertility rates is detected. The positive relationship, however, holds for most Western European countries. Given that there are still significant differences in income between Western and Eastern European countries, it may be that a particular income threshold needs to be reached before income has any affect on the birth rates.

But even in wealthier countries there are exceptions. In Germany and Austria, traditionally well-off countries with high standards of living, fertility rates are as low as in some of the Eastern European countries that have faced political and social unrest in recent decades. In fact, in Germany, the fertility rate is lower than that during the depression in the 1930s [1]


Statistical evidence strongly suggests that we should be looking at factors other than just income to explain the decline in fertility rates we face in Europe today. The crisis of family (also known as the “end of patriarchate”) and the transitional period we have entered with changing roles of both women and men in the society and at home, and the related increased focus on personal valuations may also be behind much of the observed decline. Much of personal decision making today seems to be attached to personal aspirations, whatever their nature may be, including those considerations that are deemed central to human life, such as feeling deep connections to others and having a family.

The view that values enter significantly into one’s personal decision making seems to be supported by the data from the World Values Survey. In this survey, unique in its scope and breadth, participants across the world were asked extensive questions pertaining to their personal views of family, religion, expectations, and personal circumstances. In the graphs below we can see how fertility rates relate to responses regarding personal valuations of the importance of marriage (graph 1), importance of family (graph 2) and certain characteristics being desirable in children, in particular, independence and feeling of responsibility (graphs 3 and 4). Data for European countries from wave 5 of the survey (2005-2009) were used.  This wave was used because it represents the most recent data for the majority of European countries.

Graph 1                                                                      Graph 2WhenMoreIsLess2

Graph 3                                                                      Graph 4WhenMoreIsLess3

From the above graphs, we can see that the view that marriage is NOT an outdated institution correlated most strongly with fertility rates. Valuation of family as important was also positively related to fertility rates. The weakest relationship was detected between fertility rates and independence as a desirable trait in children. The relationship was, however, stronger when feeling of responsibility as a desirable trait in children was considered.

This brief analysis underscores how personal valuations, and here I considered attitudes toward marriage and family, as well as views on relative desirability of characteristics in children, may affect the structure and the very future of one’s family. In particular, it seems that in many societies that place relatively higher value on personal independence, fewer children are being born. This is the case of Germany, Slovenia and Switzerland, countries that based on personal income and generally good social environment and protections would seem well positioned for thriving family life (Sweden would be an exception with both high fertility rate and high percentage of survey participants indicating “independence” as a desirable trait in a child). This observation is confirmed when we consider countries with some of the highest fertility rates, such as Turkey, France and Georgia. Here, most people omitted the word “independence” when asked about desirable traits in a child, thus suggesting a prevailing view of family as a tight, inter-dependent unit.WhenMoreIsLess4

Source: World Values Survey Wave 5: 2005-2009:

Child qualities: independence Source for fertility rates data: World Bank 2014

On the other hand, the higher frequency of “feeling of responsibility” mentioned as a desirable trait in children was more positively associated with fertility rates (lower left graph).WhenMoreIsLess5

Source: World Values Survey Wave 5: 2005-2009:

Child qualities: feeling of responsibility Source for fertility rates data: World Bank 2014

The notion of responsibility is, of course, different from that of independence. Where independence is generally considered to imply that one can make it on his or her own, feeling of responsibility involves care for others as part of self-consideration. The possible effects of such attitudes on family formation and fertility rates thus seem to deserve a more careful examination.

As mentioned, changing perceptions of family and personal expectations may also play a role in the observed decline in the fertility rate. In Germany, for example, survey participants held some of the most negative views in the cohort in response to a question regarding views of housewives (only 11% of respondents said that they considered this circumstance equally satisfactory as if the woman worked for pay). Some other variables associated with more traditional views of family and marriage (such as importance of religion) also didn’t resonate much with the participants. Combined with views that favor personal independence, the resulting low fertility rate in Germany, despite the high standard of living (or perhaps partly because of it), may not come as a surprise after all. Namely, the social protections and high personal income in some western countries, combined with the self-centered approach to life through various value commitments may also be contributing to development of a personal feeling of self-sufficiency, which can lead to a lesser reliance on others, and this in turn to the observed crisis of family.

On a more optimistic note, there has been (very slight) increase in the fertility rates in the last couple of years in those countries that have been particularly hardly hit with the decline. This can mean that the bottom has been reached and that better days are ahead.

[1] Coleman, David. The Road to Low Fertility, Ageing Horizons, Issue No. 7, 7-15, Oxford Institute of Ageing

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.