Family Policies and the Western European Fertility Divide

A distinct fertility divide has emerged in Western Europe in recent decades. Countries in Central and Southern Europe are reporting cohort fertility rates far below replacement level. Among these are the German-speaking countries, where fertility has long been at sub-replacement levels. In Germany, the cohort fertility rates for women born in 1960 are around 1.6. This is well below the figures for countries in north-western Europe which all register cohort fertility rates close to replacement levels. This includes United Kingdom (2.0), Belgium (1.9), France (2.1), and Denmark (1.9), among others. Recent forecasts by Myrskylä, Gold­stein, and Cheng (2013) that extend to cohorts born in 1979 suggest that this divide is persistent and may even increase slightly over time.

In seeking to explain these differences, some scholars have stressed the role of social policy context pointing to the work and family-friendly policies which are in place in many countries in north-western Europe (Chesnais 1998). Others have pointed to variation in fertility-related social norms. Sobotka and Testa (2008) suggested that there is evidence for a “culture of child­lessness” in German-speaking societies, where “child-free lifestyles” are enjoying high popularity. It is difficult, however, to disentangle the interrelated roles of social norms and policies in influencing fertility trends (Neyer and Andersson 2008). Because politicians in democracies are likely to shape their policies in response to the dominant views of their constituents, conservative family policies may partially mirror conservative images that prevail in the society (see Streeck and Thelen 2005). These poli­cies may, in turn, reinforce social norms, since the policy context is likely to create economic incentives that reward norm-compliant behaviour.

In a recent study, Karel Neels, Michaela Kreyenfeld and I strived to dis­entangle the role of family policies and social norms by drawing on a quasi-natural experiment. After World War I, Germany was compelled to cede the Eupen-Malmedy territory to Belgium. The predominantly German-speaking municipalities of this territory today form the German-speaking community in Belgium (Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft in Belgien). This community has the same constitutional rights as the communities of the two dominant language groups of the country, the Flemish and the French. In the German-speaking community, German is the official language of administration and in all public education institutions. There is frequent contact with Germany in the form of commuter traffic or through the German mass media. But people living in the German-speaking region of Belgium have been subject to the institutional context of the Belgian state, including its family and labour market policies, for nearly all of the last century. These policies differ considerably from the policies implemented in western Germany, as Belgium has long provided a high level of child care coverage, which supports parents in combining work and family. It appears therefore that the German minority in eastern Belgium has been exposed to two potentially conflicting forces that are relevant for repro­ductive choices: 1) the incentive structure created by Belgian family policies and 2) the social norms prevalent in the German society as the result of frequent cross-border contacts and exposure to debates on “German” fertility and family images.

In our study we examine whether maternal employment patterns and fertility trends in the German-speaking region of Belgium follow the Belgian or the western German pattern. If national family policies are the most important factor behind the differences in the fertility levels of Belgium and western Germany, we would expect that the fertility of the German minority in Belgium would resemble that of the population in other parts of Belgium. If, however, social norms are predominantly responsible for the fertility di­vide, the fertility levels of the German minority in Belgium should follow the pattern observed in western Germany. Our findings indicate that maternal employment patterns and fertility trends in the Belgian German-speaking region generally resemble the Belgian pattern. In the beginning of the 2000s, among the German minority two thirds of all mothers with children below two years were in full- or part-time employment, while in western Germany this was only the case for less than a third of this group. In our multivariate models we found no significant differences between the fertility outcomes of the German-speaking region and other parts of Belgium (Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia). In the German-speaking region, the cohort fertility rates for the cohorts born 1955-1959 are at a level of 1.88 (German-born and German nationals excluded), which is slightly above the numbers reported for Belgium (1.84). Also, differences in the outcomes by educational attainment are much less pronounced in Belgium compared to western Germany, where highly educated women have very low fertility outcomes. This fits with theoretical considerations that child care is particularly important for highly educated persons as they face the highest opportunity costs if they are forced to reduce their labour force participation as a result of limited access to external child care options. Our findings suggest that institutional factors are im­portant for understanding the current fertility differences in Western Europe. The study has been published in the December issue of Population and Development Review.


Klüsener, Sebastian, Karel Neels, and Michaela Kreyenfeld (2013). “Family Policies and the Western European Fertility Divide: Insights from a Natural Experiment in Belgium, Population and Development Review 39(4), 587-610.

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Sebastian Klüsener

About Sebastian Klüsener

Sebastian Klüsener is a research scientist at the Max-Planck-Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. His research focuses on interdependencies between policy contexts and demographic behaviour, long-term spatial aspects of demographic change and the role of social interaction in demographic decision-making.

One thought on “Family Policies and the Western European Fertility Divide

  1. I found the same result, that the economic and policy climate in a country has a stronger effect on fertility patterns than cultural background of individuals. Foreign workers living in Germany about 30 years ago showed a rapid convergence toward German patterns of childbearing outside marriage, despite coming from societies where such extramarital childbearing was rare and non-normative. E. Carlson. 1985. Increased non-marital births among foreign women in Germany. Sociology and Social Research 70(1): 110-11.

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