Usually couples want to have children, but what is the right time for childbearing? When will the preferences for having children become more concrete intentions? Preferences are wishes and ideals that are very much in accordance with the perceived norms in a society. Intentions, however, are much more solid: they are plans to be realized in the near future.

A study of the FamiliesAndSocieties  project looks at the short term childbearing intentions in ten European States. Data from the European Social Survey (2004/05 and 2010/11) were used.

The authors looked at the perceived job and income insecurity in ten European countries representing different welfare regimes. The countries are the UK, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, Spain, and the Central and Eastern European countries (CEE) Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic.

The study asked if people intended to have a child, or more children, within the next three years. The information collected showed that the real turning point is the intention of having the first child: this decision influences the life course tremendously and it is the one that is carefully considered.

So, what are the decisive points for the intention to have a child? Not surprisingly, economic issues matter greatly: the perceived employment and income insecurity make one reluctant to have a child one wishes. Intentions are low, and the realization of the wish is postponed.

The study further shows that the intentions to have a child vary with age, the welfare systems and parenthood status. For example, referring to only a few of the numerous data collected in the course of the study it shows that the insecure economic situation hinders childless women between 25 and 34 mainly in the UK; it hinders childless men between 30 and 35 in the Netherlands and Germany; and those over 35 in the UK.

In other countries, e.g. Spain and the CEE countries, the same age groups see income insecurity as more important than employment insecurity. Mothers with one child postpone their childbearing intentions due to concerns over the negative economic situation and their future more in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain than in other European countries. The same stands for fathers with one child living in the CEE countries. This holds true for both the job insecurity and income insecurity.

Seemingly confusing and very contrasting at first, these differences must be interpreted with focus on the national situation. If there is low institutional support and highly priced childcare as in the UK, the intention of having a child is significantly and understandably lower than in countries with good and affordable institutional care. Labor market and weak work-family reconciliation policies make low childbirth intentions understandable in Spain.

One-child mothers and one-child fathers clearly experience insufficient support for childcare duties and are especially affected by employment and income insecurity. Childbearing intentions are rather specifically influenced by the perceived local economic situation and expected future, by institutional arrangements and support for childcare from the side of the state as well as from social networks.

How can these study results inspire policy?

Looking at economic indicators, we see that they matter. But it is the diversity across age groups, gender and parenthood status that allows us to identify groups that feel more threatened by economic uncertainty in one country than they do in another. Looking more thoroughly at the policies in different countries might allow us to explain the differences. Comparisons of the countries based on large data show variety. To explain it, we have to look at the specific cases – a task still waiting to be taken up and addressed.

Source: Susanne Fahlén, Livia Olah, The impact of economic uncertainty on childbearing intentions in Europe. WP 36, 2015.

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