Low fertility constitutes one of the key social issues currently facing European societies, leading to various problems of a social, economic and cultural-political nature.
First, in many countries, the difficult combination of work and family leads to sub optimal solutions with women bearing fewer children than actually desired (Esping-Andersen 2009; Fahey 2007). Secondly, populations with lowest-low fertility, i.e. with total fertility rates at or below 1.3, experience a reduction of the annual number of births by 50% and a halving of population size in 45 years (Kohler, Billari and Ortega 2006). Third, European societies are increasingly confronted with the problem of how a small and shrinking working population will support a large and growing number of retired elderly (Longman 2004). Fourth, shrinking and ageing populations are more vulnerable in geopolitical perspective, i.e. in the sustainability of their economic well-being and of their cultural preferences.
Solutions within a medium and long-term timeframe
The proposed research program will provide detailed knowledge that will help policy makers at the regional, national and European level in designing courses of action to intervene in processes of population ageing and decline. Concretely, the program will lay bare the diverse roles that parent-child, sibling, and husband-wife relations play in shaping fertility behavior in regions and groups with longstanding diverging cultural conceptions of family and kin. The program’s results show how the timing of childbearing in women’s lives is influenced by the availability, resource provision and competition, and social influence of specific family members.
The long-term scope of the program also provides regional and class-specific information on whether and where in Europe different types of family influences on fertility are converging, diverging, or continuing. For policy makers, knowledge of this nature is very important. When it is found for instance that the relative force of parental influence in a certain region or country has remained unabated over the last 160 years, policies that reinforce these strong ties are likely to be more effective than policies that try to curb them.
The program’s findings will be primarily informative to policy makers designing family and population policies. However, the program’s conceptual framework with its emphasis on the persistent variation in family relations, and the effects thereof, might also be applied by policy makers designing courses of intervention in other societal problems, such as unemployment patterns, schooling careers, leaving home patterns, health and mortality, and elderly care. Apart from policy makers, the program’s results are of interest to the general public. They broadly inform the public of the historical changes and regional differences in family relations, thereby providing highly sought forinformation about one’s own (regional) past.