February 21, 2024 | News | Spotlight

Widening Fertility Differences Between Women Within Different Fields of Education


Finland: First birth decline in 2010s more pronounced in fields associated with higher economic uncertainty

Women´s choices about whether or not to have children may be influenced by their choice of education. © iStockphoto.com/Vesnaandjic

The birth rate in the Nordic countries has been falling steadily since 2010. Previous studies showed that the decline in first births among childless couples is the main driver of this trend and that this first birth decline was somewhat elevated among those with low levels of education and precarious employment. A team of researchers from the University of Helsinki, the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) and the University of Turku has now investigated the extent to which the decline in fertility in Finland varies according to education field.

"We calculated the total fertility rate and the expected proportion of women ever having a first birth between 2010 and 2019 for 153 education groups. We analyzed the relationship between economic uncertainty - i.e. unemployment, income and public sector employment - and fertility decline in different areas," explains Julia Hellstrand, author of the study and researcher at the University of Helsinki. The study uses data from Finnish population registers. The researchers found that the fertility decline in the 2010s was greater in areas with a relatively low level of fertility, e.g. among women with an ITC, arts or humanities education. Smaller declines were observed among women with originally higher levels of fertility e.g. among women with a degree in health, welfare and education and among women with agricultural training. "The strength of the fertility decline is related to factors such as higher unemployment, lower income and a lower share of public sector employment. Together, these factors explain a quarter of the decline in the total fertility rate and two-fifths of the decline in first births," says Hellstrand. Even before 2010, the relatively high and stable fertility levels in the Nordic countries were accompanied by large differences in fertility levels by field of education. Research has already observed that long-term trends show that the ultimate childlessness level particularly among the least educated cohorts is increasing over time. Thus, the previously positive educational differences in final childlessness have become negative, meaning that women with the lowest level of education are now most likely to remain childless. "In this latest study, we also see growing differences among women with medium and high levels of education - depending on whether they are educated in a field associated with less or more secure employment," says Hellstrand.

The results of the study suggest that with the fertility decline in the 2010s, the differences in fertility levels between educational backgrounds is widening, especially for first births. "The growing social inequality in childbearing illustrates what could be the downside of strong work-family reconciliating policies and the dual-earner model. A secure labor market position for both partners has increasingly become a prerequisite for couples to have children, while those with a weaker labor market position face increasing obstacles to starting a family," explains the researcher.

Future studies should focus on male fertility and couple dynamics to gain a better understanding of the emerging gender similarities but growing social inequalities in childbearing in the Nordic countries. Facing changing family structures and preferences for a childfree lifestyle, it is important to analyze differences in fertility intentions between social groups and by partnership status. Possible reasons for the fertility decline could be the different family orientations of men and women in different educational fields. "As the choice of field of study reflects personal preferences and interests, some of the differences in fertility decline by field of study could be due to differences in family orientation. This would help to better target policy support at the most important structural barriers to starting a family," Hellstrand concludes.

Original Publication

Hellstrand, Julia; Nisén, Jessica; Myrskylä, Mikko:  Educational field, economic uncertainty, and fertility decline in Finland in 2010-2019 in European Sociological Review (2024). DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcae001

Authors and Affiliations

Julia Hellstrand 
University of Helsinki, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR)
Jessica Nisén 
University of Turku, University of Helsinki, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR)
Mikko Myrskylä 
Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR), University of Helsinki


fertility, education, Finland, childlessness, childbirth, total fertility rate, birth rate


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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.