Europeans want children: Can policies help?

Which factors determine fertility rates in Europe? How do people decide to have children? Why do many people postpone or abandon their childbearing plans? Coordinated by the Vienna Institute of Demography (VID), the REPRO research project has spent the past three years exploring these and other compelling questions concerning Europe's demographic development. Its findings reveal a great deal about Europe's fertility challenge.

Childbearing intentions and their subsequent realisation are the main focal point of REPRO’s research. To this end the project has made extensive use of the socio-psychological Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB), which explores the links between intentions and behaviour. The TPB defines three main factors related to an individual’s fertility intentions: personal attitudes towards having a child; the influence of social norms and opinions of friends and relatives (subjective norms); and the extent to which the individual is able to control childbearing and its consequences for his/her family.

Intentions are the result of a combination of these three factors. Parental leave and child allowances and other key policy instruments enhance the third factor: personal control. However, they have a lower influence on attitudes and perceived norms. So, traditional policies may fail where negative attitudes to childbearing prevail and where one’s social network is not supportive of one’s decision to have a child, since these factors may outweigh the effect of the policy instruments.

The results suggest that policy approaches should be more sensitive to the ways that different subjective norms and personal attitudes affect the intention to have a child. REPRO contends that fertility strategies must take multiple factors into account, such as economic, social, institutional and psychological factors, and consider a web of (often conflicting) policy influences. For example, family policies support a decision to have a child while social policies enhancing work may act as a disincentive for childbearing desires.

While the consortium acknowledges that conventional polices (such as child allowances and parental leave) may be helpful in supporting the realisation of an intention to have a child, the project's findings indicate that other policy instruments should be considered as well. Job insecurity, gender equality and the reconciliation of work and family are identified as possible key areas for policy intervention. It is suggested that intervening in these policy areas “may help particularly in alleviating obstacles ... which impede the realisation of people's intentions to have children”. And there seem to be plenty of these obstacles.

The realisation of fertility intentions was examined using panel data – see Table 1. Respondents who had declared in wave 1 that they intended to have a child during the subsequent three years were classified into three groups according to the way their childbearing intentions were realised three years later:

  • Intentional parents are respondents who had realised their intentions to have a child.
  • Postponers are respondents who did not fulfil their intention to have a child but indicated in the second panel that they intended to have a child during the subsequent three-year period.
  • Abandoners are respondents who did not realise their intention to have a child and declared in wave 2 that they no longer intended to have a child during the subsequent three-year period.


Table 1 - Fulfilment of fertility intentions

Table 1 shows the distribution of respondents in these three groups. It reveals a striking contrast in the fulfilment of intentions among the four countries: the Dutch are the most likely to realise their intentions while less than 50% of the Bulgarians and the Hungarians are able to do so. A possible explanation is that the dynamics of societal change in Bulgaria and Hungary is very high and hence less predictable.

As the REPRO team note, the decision whether or not to have a child is quite complex and depends on numerous socio-economic and cultural factors. Indeed, the 27 Member States of the European Union display a high degree of heterogeneity, so there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the union's demographic challenges. In its efforts to explain why some policies appear to promote fertility in one country but not another, the REPRO initiative recognises the considerable role played by social norms.

To highlight the power of social norms, the researchers present specific data from the European Social Survey regarding rates of disapproval of female voluntary childlessness. The survey shows, for example, that while 86% of people in Ukraine disapprove of voluntary childlessness, the figure in Sweden is just 4%. This radical difference, the researchers argue, has little to do with country differentials in terms of socio-economic or political factors per se. Instead, it is almost entirely attributable to cultural differences, and differences in social norms and values, in particular. In this case: “individuals who are highly educated, less religious and value personal autonomy highly are less likely to disapprove of childlessness”. These norms may happen to be more prevalent in some countries than others, but the researchers stress that they are specific to individuals.

Making an effort to provide practical orientation for policy makers interested in fertility levels, the REPRO consortium has produced a set of factors to keep in mind when analysing and responding to fertility challenges:

  • Policies should broaden their scope and pay more attention to the realisation of intentions to have a child. However, policy makers also need to ensure that family planning options are available for those who do not wish to have a child.
  • Fertility intentions are formed through a combination of three main factors: personal attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived control over having a child. When constructing policy instruments, all three factors need to be taken into account: policies which neglect one or two of these factors may ultimately be ineffective.
  • Fertility decisions are affected by many different policies simultaneously, such as policies related to decreasing unemployment, enhancing education, improving housing conditions, promoting gender equality, and, above all, family policies.
  • Many relevant policies do not usually aim to influence fertility, but are motivated by different objectives and, therefore, have an indirect effect on childbearing decisions. For example, policies that aim to decrease unemployment may contribute to a rise in family income and hence alleviate economic problems associated with having a child; these same policies may prompt women who have secured employment to postpone their childbearing plans.
  • Policies may be analysed one by one, but it is the combination of policies and their coherence that matters for reproductive decisions.
  • Stability is an important policy feature, improving predictability of the consequences of individual reproductive decisions.
  • The impact of policies on fertility may differ widely by social group, age and the number of children already born. For example, the intention to have a first child and the important transition to parenthood raises different support needs compared with those associated with the desire to have a second or a third child, which are mainly economic in nature.
  • Institutional context - including prevailing norms and attitudes in a country - influences the way a particular policy may be accepted and how it will influence reproductive decisions. Wide public discourse on family support provided by policies may inspire a positive disposition towards childbearing.
  • It is important to distinguish short-term from long-term policy effects, also with respect to the timing and level of fertility. Frequently, the introduction of new or improved policy instruments results in an increase in the number of births, but this is simply a timing effect. People decide to have their planned children earlier on in order to make use of these instruments. Policies should aim towards a long-term increase in births, beyond this short-term timing effect.
  • Well designed policies signal that a) having and rearing children is valued and b) that parents will be supported in this endeavour.

Undoubtedly, much work remains to be done in this challenging policy area. But the REPRO project has enhanced our understanding of the problem, stressing a need to consider subjective norms and individual attitudes when designing policy responses.

REPRO - Reproductive decision-making in a macro-micro perspective (duration: 1/2/2008 – 31/1/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications", Research area 3.1 "Demographic changes". Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Dimiter Philipov,