China is scrapping its one-child policy and officially allowing all couples to have two children. While some may think this heralds an overnight switch, the reality is that it is far less dramatic. This is, in fact, merely the latest in an array of piecemeal national and local reforms implemented since 1984.
Population recently embarked on a new annual series of articles providing an overview of emerging demographic issues spanning the latest research on data, theories, and policy implications. Prenatal sex selection — now spreading from Asia to Eastern Europe — has been selected as the topic for the first installment.
As the developed world hunkers down for the long winter of ageing it may be instructive to reflect on just how we arrived at this particular juncture of world population history and how the recent past is likely to mark future developments in this process. In many ways, the twentieth century was unique with respect to the timing and intensity of population trends. During this period, there was a very clear boom and bust cycle of fertility. The starting point for this great cycle can be found during the 1930s when in many, but not all, developed nations fertility was already quite low, often near or even below levels considered necessary for population replacement (Total Fertility Rate (TFR) = 2.1).
Does birth order matter? Over the past hundred years, this simple question has inspired a rancorous debate. For the past ten years, however, the growing consensus has been that yes, it does matter. It is becoming increasingly clear that, relative to first borns, later born siblings within the same family have lower educational attainment (Black, Devereux and Salvanes, 2005), lower cognitive ability (Bjerkedal et al., 2007; Barclay, 2015a), and worse health in adulthood (Barclay and Myrskylä, 2014).
To what extent do genes determine when you have your first child and the total number of children that you have? Until now, social science research on fertility has largely ignored genetic explanations and instead attributed our fertility behaviour almost exclusively to the social environment and upbringing, postponement of having children in lieu of educational attainment and labour force participation and value change. Yet a growing number of studies within biology, demography, and genetics have shown that genetic factors can explain up to 40–50 % of our fertility behaviour.
Unlike most parameters in demographic research, the Total Fertility Rate has become public knowledge in OECD countries. Particularly following the occurrence and stagnation of low fertility – and the associated aggravation of the social security problems – countries’ fertility rates have established themselves in political debates, legislative initiatives, media reports, and even in cracker barrel politics.
Research from biology and psychology has shown that the prenatal period is sensitive to the environment and critical for later development. While the effects of toxins such as alcohol and nicotine on the fetus are well documented, the effect of maternal stress is more difficult to assess. The main reason is unobserved selectivity. Women who experience or report high levels of stress may be different from those who don’t in ways that affect their pregnancies, making it impossible to disentangle the effect of stress from its common correlates. The question is important because stress is widespread, stratified along socioeconomic and racial lines, and may be a central mechanism for the noxious effect of poverty or discrimination on children. We examine the effect of maternal stress and address the unobserved selectivity problem in a recent ASR article.
In the past few years there has been a growing recognition of the effect of peers on an individual’s behaviour. Recent sociological literature has shown, for instance, that friends influence each other in areas such as smoking, drinking, and how much we exercise. In our recently published paper, we examine the influence of friends on an individual’s decision to have a child. So far, research on fertility behavior has largely neglected the fact that people are embedded in social networks, thereby failing to acknowledge that couples do not make fertility choices in a vacuum.
The rising importance of unmarried cohabitation in the demographic landscape is part of a whole array of ongoing changes in families and relationships in contemporary Europe; for example fewer people marry, more marriages end in divorce and fewer children are born than in the past. The diversity in the ways in which cohabiters view their relationship has consequences for the plans and behaviour of cohabiters in these relationships. In our recently published paper, we examine the association between different meanings of cohabitation and plans to have children.
Studies of contraceptive use reveal intersecting, and often competing, life realms that individuals navigate when making fertility decisions. The decision of whether or not to use contraception is only in part a decision about one’s desire for a child; it is also a consideration of potential career tradeoffs, social network repercussions, financial resources, and the development of one’s identity as an adult – man or woman. Alternatively, a laissez faire approach to pregnancy prevention can be equally revealing of an individual’s or couple’s negotiations through other important life goals.