The Emergence of Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe During the 1990s

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Abstract

Lowest-low fertility, defined as a period total fertility rate at or below 1.3, has rapidly spread in Europe during the 1990s. This article traces the emergence of this new phenomenon to the interaction of five factors. First, tempo and compositional distortions reduce the total fertility rate below the associated level of cohort fertility. Second, socioeconomic changes—including increased returns to human capital and high economic uncertainty in early adulthood—have made late childbearing a rational response for individuals and couples. Third, social interaction effects reinforce this behavioral adjustment and contribute to large and persistent postponement in the mean age at birth. Fourth, institutional settings favor an overall low quantum of fertility. Fifth, postponement–quantum interactions amplify the consequences of this institutional setting when combined with ongoing delays of child-bearing. The article concludes with speculations about future trends in current and prospective lowest-low-fertility countries.

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