MPIDR Working Paper

The demographic transition revisited: a cohort perspective

Frejka, T.

MPIDR Working Paper WP-2016-012, 26 pages (November 2016).
Rostock, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

This paper is part of the Human Fertility Database Research Reports series as HFD RR-2016-001

Keywords: cohort fertility, comparative analysis, demographic transition


The principal focus of this paper is to analyze the fertility transition of the 19th to early 21st centuries with cohort fertility measures, and a discussion of key societal conditions shaping the transition. This new approach and procedure reveals that there were four different fertility transition pathways. Arguably equally important is the finding that thus far the demographic transition has not resulted in an equilibrium of relatively stable low mortality and stable low fertility. Early in the 21st century mortality is continuing to decline steadily, fertility is generally below replacement, and fertility trends are in a flux with a tendency towards further declines. The four types of fertility transition patterns were: a. The “Western” distinguished by major cohort total fertility rate (CTFR) fluctuations; b.  The Central and East European characterized by a stable CTFR band around 2.0 births per woman in the 1920s to 1950s birth cohorts; c. The Southern European characterized by a relatively stable secular CTFR decline; d.  The East and South-East Asian characterized by rapidly declining CTFRs starting as late as in the middle of the 20th century. In all four fertility transition pathways almost all CTFRs were below replacement in the youngest cohorts born in the 1960s and early 1970s ending their childbearing early in the 21st century. The higher CTFRs, mostly between 1.7 and 2.0 births per woman, were in the “Western” populations, the lowest of 1.2 to 1.6 in East and South-East Asia. The exploration of societal conditions shaping mortality and fertility trends confirm Notestein’s conclusions formulated 70 years ago (Notestein 1945 and 1953). This investigation has shown that it was a complex combination of “technological, social, economic, and political developments,” and also of cultural and ideational effects – revealed by subsequent research, especially of Coale (1973) as well as of Lesthaeghe and van de Kaa (1986) – which shape mortality and fertility trends. Furthermore, Notestein observed that it is “impossible to be precise about the various causal factors” generating mortality and fertility trends.  Primary causal factors alternated between economic, social, political, policy and other factors.

Keywords: Demographic transition – Pathways of the fertility transition – International comparative analysis – Cohort fertility – Causes of the demographic transition