From large, wealthy families to childless success?

Walter Scheidel, Stanford University
Vegard Skirbekk, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Hans-Peter Kohler, University of Pennsylvania

Before the fertility decline during the demographic transition, individuals from higher social strata tended to relatively more children---on average about 17% more---than individuals from lower social strata. After the demographic transition, this status-fertility relationship has reversed, and high status individuals have on average about 30% fewer children than low status individuals. In this paper, we investigate why and to which extent the effects of social status (typically measured as occupation, education and wealth) affected childbearing outcomes in both pre- and post-transitional societies. Our analysis is based on a meta-analysis of more than 300 samples, more than double the number of samples investigated in previous meta-analyses. The reasons for why fertility declined earlier and more markedly among the higher social classes include access to and knowledge of prevention, mortality reductions, urbanization, female autonomy, secularization and higher opportunity costs. Moreover, in most pre-demographic transition societies, relatively few social ladders existed. A man’s status was to a large extent given by the amount of inherited land, wealth and status coming from his father’s social rank. In modern societies, some measures of social mobility exist for the majority of the population. Moreover, high parental status does not guarantee ones own status, as status is to a much lesser extent known early in life, and one needs to strive to achieve or maintain it. This requires time-demanding investments, which often implies sacrificing much of ones reproductive career: Long education, career establishment, obtaining a house and attaining financial security implies working for several years of reproductive life, as achieving a university education often lasts until late-20s or even later. Hence high social status can be said to have changed from being a prerequisite to becoming an alternative to having many children.

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Presented in Session 34: Differentital fertility in the past