August 02, 2021 | Press Release

Not Just Later, but Fewer: Women in Nordic Countries Now Have Less Children

Forecasts indicate a fertility decline to an all-time low around 1.8 children for women born in the late 1980s. © photocase.com/silwan

Fertility in Nordic countries declined in the 2010s. Women now not only have children later in their lives, but also fewer. This is what MPIDR Research Fellow Julia Hellstrand and MPIDR Director Mikko Myrskylä found for the first time by analyzing up-to-date data from the Human Fertility Database (HFD) and Nordic statistical agencies.

In the 2010s, fertility declined in the Nordic countries of Iceland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. A fertility decline is not uncommon in these countries, but previous strong declines having often been due to fertility postponement and recuperation later in life. This time, however, it is different. The decline is not only a result of postponement, but also a decline in completed family size. This means that women now have less children on average in their lifetime than women have had over the past 30 years.

“Our forecasts indicate a decline in the average Nordic cohort fertility from two children for the 1970 cohort to an all-time low around 1.8 children for women born in the late 1980s,” says Julia Hellstrand, Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, and PhD student at the University of Helsinki. This reverses the historically stable pattern in Nordic cohort fertility.

“One of the key drivers of this decline is that more women simply remain childless,” says MPIDR Director Mikko Myrskylä. The researchers observed this decline for all women between the ages of 15 to the mid-thirties.

“Our study was the first to analyze the most recent trends.”

For their analysis, the demographers used age- and birth-order-specific fertility rates from the Human Fertility Database (HFD) and also aggregated data from national statistical agencies. Their study has now been published in the scientific journal Demography. “Our study was the first to analyze the most recent trends by age and birth order,” says Julia Hellstrand.

Despite the long-term trend of fertility postponement, cohort fertility in the Nordic countries has previously remained stable, because women had more children later in life. Comparatively high gender equality and support for working mothers and for dual-earner families with young children have been considered to promote such a recuperation pattern.

Underlying factors for the fertility decline remain unclear

Theories predicting low fertility levels to recover with improvements in gender equality are largely based on these empirical association. “Fertility is now declining strongly in these Nordic countries, despite their work-family friendly environment and comparatively high levels of gender equality. That challenges these theories,” says Julia Hellstrand.

The underlying factors for this Nordic fertility decline remain unclear. But there is evidence that points in directions beyond the influence of family policies to economic factors and how they may shape the experience of uncertainty. “Future comparative studies should explore the links between economic uncertainty, the value placed on family, and fertility rates,” says Julia Hellstrand.

Original Publication

Hellstrand, J., Nisén, J., Miranda, V., Fallesen, P., Dommermuth, L., Myrskylä, M.: Not just later, but fewer: Novel trends in cohort fertility in the Nordic countries. Demography (2021). DOI: 10.1215/00703370-9373618

Authors and Affiliations

Julia Hellstrand, University of Helsinki, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock

Jessica Nisén, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock

Vitor Miranda, Statistics Sweden

Peter Fallesen, Stockholm University

Lars Dommermuth, Statistics Norway

Mikko Myrskylä, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock

MPIDR-Authors of the Paper

PhD student

Julia Hellstrand

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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.