Pro-natal Responses to National Decline

  • Lon FelkerEmail author
  • Paul Trogen
Living reference work entry


Total Fertility Rate Baby Boom Demographic Transition Fertility Decline German Woman 
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Population decline: a decline in aggregate birthrate of a population


“Every human society is faced not with one population problem but with two: how to beget and rear enough children and how not to beget too many.” M. Mead, 1950

At “the turn of the twenty-first century, fertility decline and sub replacement fertility have become widespread” (Morgan and Taylor 2006). All first-world countries reproduce below the 2.1% replacement rate (Last 2013:8). According to UN projections, by 2050, 75% of all countries in the world will have below replacement rate fertility (Last 2013:26). Falling birthrates create greater challenges than population growth. One of the stiffest headwinds slowing recovery from the global financial crisis is demographics (Ip 2015). “There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital” (Last 2013: 36).

Demographic Transition Theory

Two demographic transitions transformed the human race from high to sub-replacement fertility. Long ago, such as during the Middle Ages, infant mortality was high, so women used to give birth to more children than they desired, expecting some would not survive. When progress caused infant mortality to decline, more children survived and the population grew. The population surge causing Malthus (1798) to raise an alarm. Parents’ also realized more children were surviving, and they started having fewer children until they approximated their desired family size. This reduction in fertility to match desired family size is called the first demographic transition.

The second demographic transition occurred when families left farms to live in cities and work in factories. On the farm, children were an asset as they produced more than they consumed. When families moved to the city, children who once were an asset became an expense and an impediment to economic mobility (Last 2013: 87–96). The second demographic transition reduced desired family size. “Developmental changes that transformed Europe from a predominantly rural-agrarian to a predominantly urban-industrial society accompanied the transition from high to low levels of fertility” Knodel and van de Walle (1979: 217).

If development is the best contraception (Pritchett 1994), it works all too well in developed countries. Every member of the European Union has less than replacement level fertility (Hoorens et al. 2011: 1). Nature has not provided a self-correcting mechanism to stabilize fertility once it falls to replacement level (Kohler et al. 2002: 641). Once fertility transition has begun, it does not stop until births fall below replacement rates (Morgan and Taylor 2006). The second demographic transition theory predicts sub-replacement fertility and will be “structural and permanent” (Last 2013: 94). Industrialized nation-states do not produce enough children to sustain their populations (ibid).

Sub-replacement Fertility

1930s Sub-replacement Fertility

Demographers in the 1930s detected fertility levels in Europe well below two births per woman (Morgan and Taylor 2006). Teitelbaum and Winter (1985) recount that France during the 1930s and 1940s suffered considerable anguish regarding the perceived “withering” of the nation. Young childless couples were accused of shirking their patriotic duty. French, as Teitelbaum and Winter note, has a term for a birthrate decline: denatalite, which “carries a much stronger (and more negative) emphasis than its English equivalent” (1985: 3).

Postwar Baby Boom

The debate over fertility declines was muted by the postwar baby boom in every industrialized European nation and quite a few non-European ones. Andorka (1978: 120) observes:

After the Second World War the pessimistic population projections proved to be wrong. In the most developed western European countries, as well as the United States and Canada, in Australia and New Zealand, and in the white population of South Africa, the trend of fertility changed, with a rise of all fertility measures which was popularly called the ‘baby boom.’

Initially the experts attributed the fertility rise to postwar replacement; the rates remained high so long that it appeared that the secular trend of low fertility had shifted to higher rates. In hind sight, such projections of continued high fertility were shortsighted, and the baby boom soon proved to be an anomaly.

Baby Bust

The baby booms of the post-World War I and post-World War II eras must now be viewed as ephemeral phenomena. These were temporary responses to one-time events, which failed to reverse the overall fertility decline. Japan, for example, had a baby boom from 1946 to 1951, following which its birthrate fell by half (Arentz 2015). Fertility dropped in every industrialized nation between 1960 and 1980: Canada, 3.8 to 1.8; the Netherlands, 3.1 to 1.6; the United States, 3.7 to 1.8; and West Germany, 2.3 to 1.5 (Last 2013: 15).

The New Normal

Below replacement fertility is the new normal. There is no reason to think fertility will rise above replacement level. No country has exceeded replacement level fertility for 5 years after falling below it (Morgan and Taylor 2006). Low fertility reshapes a population structure, with more adults, and eventually more retirees, than children (Last 2013: 26).

Sample Attempts to Reverse National Decline

There appear to be three basic rules for pro-natal policies:
  1. 1.

    Below a certain point, there is no turning back (Last 2013:159). There are no reasonable grounds for believing fertility will rise above replacement rate. After a five-year decline below replacement level, no nation has ever risen above it (Last 2013:24).

  2. 2.

    Any effort to increase fertility must be long term, over several generational cohorts, as is suggested by the relatively successful efforts in France and Scandinavia (Last 2013:160).

  3. 3.

    People cannot be bribed into having babies they do not want. Childbirth is difficult and painful and leads to unhappiness. 5.6% fewer adults describe themselves as “very happy” once they become parents (Caplan 2011:15; Last 2013:160).


Russia, Germany, and Sweden provide examples of nations promoting pro-natal policies. Russia is representative of fertility decline in post-communist Eastern Europe. Germany is the largest country in the European Union and is representative of the fertility problems of highly developed countries. Sweden, like other Scandinavian countries and France, while still suffering from sub-replacement fertility, is an example of countries experiencing more success and the highest fertility in Europe.


Russia’s challenge is a double whammy. Like most of the developed world, birthrates have fallen far below levels that would sustain the population… Russian death rates, particularly among the working-age males, have skyrocketed due to post-Soviet poverty, substance abuse, disease, stress and other ills. (Weir 2002)

Russia’s population plight is one of the most dire in Europe. The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in free-falling population. Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR), which was estimated at 2.2 children per woman in 1988 (before the fall), fell 1.41 by 2009 (Miljkovic and Glazyrina 2015). More women have abortions than give live births (ibid). Male life expectancy has also fallen 6–59 years, with the average for females falling 2–72 years (Weir 2002).

Population of Russian Republic

Time period


Soviet Era

148.3 million


145 million


142.5 million


140 million

Data Source: Miljkovic and Glazyrina 2015: 961–962

At current rates, the Russian population will halve in 43 years (Morgan and Taylor 2006). The road to a normal population distribution will be difficult for Russia. Low birthrates during the economic upheaval caused by the fall of communism leave a small current population of childbearing age.


One ray of hope amidst demographic gloom was the return migration of many ethnic Russians from the former Soviet states of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Baltic following the breakup of the USSR. However, the immigration stream is slowing. This flow is hardly sufficient to compensate for the long-term fertility decline.

Internal immigration within the Russian Republic is less of a blessing. Rural to urban migration was difficult during the Soviet period because of internal passports and population movement controls. Under Putin, some of these controls were relaxed, and it is conceivable that some of Russia’s reduction in fertility is a by-product of the natural reduction of family size that accompanies rural to urban migration.

Moreover, the long-standing xenophobia of Great Russians toward other people makes it unlikely that non-Russian immigration can account for the gap in fertility. Long-standing hostility against Asians makes opening up more immigration from China politically unacceptable (Weir 2002).

Policy Initiatives

In Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Russian parliament of May 10, 2006, he called the population decline “the most acute problem of contemporary Russia” (Rosenberg 2010). Putin offered to provide incentives for families to have a second child. The measure was enacted on December 29, 2006. Entitled the Federal Law of the Russian Federation No. 256-FZ “On Additional Measures of State Support of Families with Children,” the law permits state support of families with children in the form of the mother’s capital to be available upon the birth/adoption of a second or more children in the period from January 1, 2007 until December 31, 2016 (Miljkovic and Glazyrina 2015: 962).

These funds could be used to improve housing conditions, contribute to education of the child, and set up the contributory portion of the mother’s labor pension. The funds were accessible 3 years following the birth or adoption of the second or third child. The amount of the mother’s stipend was set at 215,000 rubles ($7722), which was eventually increased to 300,000 rubles ($9267) on November 1, 2013, and, by January of 2010, to 343,378.80 rubles (roughly $10,607) (Miljkovic and Glazyrina 2015: 962).

According to Eurasian Daily Monitor’s report (Bernstein 2008), a “demographic explosion” had occurred, with two million children born in Russia between January 1, 2007, and April 1, 2008. While the government’s 2006 law did have a positive effect on the Russian total rate, the effect was of small magnitude. Furthermore, researchers predict that the law, which expires in 2016, might have limited impact beyond its expiration date. Miljkovic and Glazyrina conclude that the policy will continue to contribute to an increasing birthrate in the next few years, “but the rate of this increase will hardly be enough to reach the level at which the population can reproduce itself” (2015: 971).

While Federal Law 256-FZ “On Additional Measures of State Support of Families with Children” exerted a small positive effect of fertility in Russia, policies to create more jobs and improve healthcare would have a greater impact on fertility (Miljkovic and Glazyrina 2015: 971–2).


Germany is the largest country in the European Union (PRB 2011). Since 1972, deaths have exceeded births every year (ibid). At the current rate, the population of Germany will halve in 46 years (Morgan and Taylor 2006).

Germany’s experiences with population policy have been mixed and unique. First, the severe loss of life during World War II created a gender imbalance that lasted a generation. Second, Germany was divided from 1945 to 1989 into two nations, one capitalist and one communist. Total fertility rates were similar in both Germanys beginning with the baby boom era from the late 1950s until 1975 (PRB 2011). Each part of the country followed different policies.


West Germany did little to reverse low fertility (Cottrell 2011). And fertility remained below 1.5 children per woman since 1975 (PRB 2011). West Germany embarked on a program of labor importation in the late 1950s and 1960s. West Germany imported large numbers of foreigners (“guest workers” or Gastarbeiter) from southern Europe, Iberia, and the Middle East.

East Germany had an additional population problem due to the attrition of population in the form of refugees to the West. Only with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1962 did this hemorrhage of population cease. Following Germany’s reunification in 1990, many ethnic Germans who had lived behind the iron curtain arrived in Germany, 800,000 in 1992 alone (PRB 2011). At the end of 2009, 19% of Germany’s population was immigrants and their offspring (PRB 2011).

German life expectancy increases, combined with decreased fertility, contributed to the phenomenon of population aging (United Nations Population Division 2000: 37). The potential support ratio dropped from 6.9 persons aged 15–64 years per person aged 65 in 1950 to 4.4 in 1995. Maintaining a workable 4.4 level of support would require “an influx of 3.4 million migrants a year…more than ten times the yearly amount of migrants entering Germany during 1993–1998” (United Nations Population Division, 2000: 38). Only an aggressive immigration policy would stop a decline in support ratios. The United Nations study on Germany concludes: “In absence of migration the retirement age would have to be raised to 77 years to obtain the same 4.4 potential support ratio” (ibid).

Immigration alone cannot be considered an adequate approach to population decline. France, from the middle of the nineteenth century until World War II, used immigration that was always regarded as an economic regulator to meet employee shortages (Chesnais 2000: 14). Chesnais notes immigration policy does not address demographic considerations such as the repair or rectangularization of the age distribution. He notes, “[s]uch an imperative would need a solution totally opposed to basic human rights: the import of children without their parents” (Chesnais, ibid).

As a member of the European Union, Germany must abide by the Schengen Agreement (PRB 2011) which allows open entry from other EU states. Currently, the influx of a large Middle Eastern migrant stream of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other Islamic nations greatly complicates any assessment of immigration as factor in population growth in Germany. Tentatively, a large Moslem presence in Germany might have a dramatic effect on short-term and long-term population growth, given the higher fertility rates in Middle Eastern countries. Many immigrant populations have distinctive birthrates upon arrival, only to see those birthrates usually adjust toward that of their host country. Whether Middle Eastern immigrants will assimilate into their host culture and absorb German fertility attitudes remains to be seen. Integrating Germany’s Turkish minority has proven difficult (Cottrell 2013). Even Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted integration was “not working” (PRB 2011).

Pro-natal Policies

The East Germans lacked the resources and the access to foreign labor markets accessed by West Germany and consequently relied on socialized medicine and an official pro-natal policy along classical socialist lines, maternity leave, childcare subsidies, and family allowances with greater allowances for additional children. Fertility rose in East Germany above that of the West and stayed strong until reunification caused economic disruption and outmigration from East Germany to the West (Cottrell 2013). After reunification, fertility in the East fell sharply to 0.8 by 1995 before gradually converging with the average level of the new unified Germany (PRB 2011).

West Germany experimented with modest monthly child allowances before reunification. In 1982, the Federal Republic offered only DM 50 for a first child (approximately 20 USD), DM 100 for a second, and DM 220 for a third. Thus, a one-child family received only DM 50, while a three-child family got DM 370 (Teitelbaum and Winter 1985: 116). West German policy had little impact.

The total fertility rate (TFR) in reunified Germany has remained between 1.3 and 1.4 children per woman, one of the lowest in Europe (Hoorens et al. 2011: 27). German women were among the first to postpone childbearing until later in life (Hoorens et al. 2011: 28). Postponed fertility implies some level of fertility foregone (Morgan and Taylor 2006). Fertility among women 20–29 years old has decreased, and more births are postponed until women are 30 years of age and older (Hoorens et al. 2011: 27).

Germany is in a disadvantageous situation because of low desired fertility rates. Germany’s low desired fertility is due to many who would like to remain childless, a preference which has become widely accepted (Hoorens et al. 2011: 29). Germany has a cultural preference for childlessness due to a commitment to career (AICGS 2015). When the European Commission’s 2001 Annual Eurobarometer survey asked German women 15–24 what their personal ideal number of children was, the result was 1.8 children (PRB 2011) compared to 2.0 only 5 years previously, and 2.6 in neighboring France. Since realized fertility is lower than desired fertility, the number of desired children sets an upper limit on fertility, not a floor. A 2001 survey of German women 18–34 years of age found nearly 17% said “none” was the ideal number of children, and 9% said “one,” percentages which far exceeded those of women giving similar answers in other EU countries (ibid).

Potential German mothers face significant headwinds if they contemplate having a child. Only 25% of German survey respondents consider Germany to be a child-friendly country (Hoorens et al. 2011, p.31). This compares unfavorably to 80% in neighboring France, whose fertility rate of 1.87 also compares favorably to Germany’s at under 1.4 (ibid). German childcare is inflexible and is among the worst in Europe. German childcare is open for few hours and is only subsidized for 3 h a day, not long enough for women with children to have jobs (Hoorens et al. 2011: 32). Most preschools close at 1:00 pm (PRB 2011). Many working mothers find themselves in poorly paid, 17 h a week “mini-jobs” paying about $600 a month (Cottrell 2013). A quarter of Germany’s female workforce holds such mini-jobs (ibid).

German culture opposes working mothers and disapprovingly calls them Rabenmutter (raven mother) because the raven abandons her young at an early age (PRB 2011). Germany’s policies reinforce cultural assumptions in which the males are the primary breadwinners (Hoorens et al. 2011: 32) and women are dependent on their husband’s earnings. If German institutions do not support working mothers, marriage becomes a prerequisite for childbearing, which may partially explain later pregnancies in Germany. Furthermore, the number of marriages contracted in Germany has fallen to its lowest level since 1950 (Hoorens et al. 2011: 30).

Unified Germany’s family benefits are now among the highest in OECD countries (AICGS 2015). The German government now gives 184 euros monthly allowance (approximately $200) for the first and the second child, 190 for the third, and 215 for the fourth, until each child turns 18 (or 25 if still in school) PRB 2011). Today Germanys spends $265 billion a year on family subsidies (Cottrell 2013); still the fertility rate lingers at about 1.4 children per woman.


Swedish fertility, while still below replacement levels, is the highest in Europe (Hoorens et al. 2011: 75). In the 1930s, Sweden had one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (Wells and Bergnehr n.d.). Furthermore, considerable emigration occurred (mostly to North America) around 1900, and during the 1930s, population growth fell to 0.3%. A national family policy was instituted, largely inspired by Gunnar Myrdal’s (1935) study of the population crisis (Myrdal and Myrdal 1935). The first of many laws reconciling work and parenting began with laws which prohibited dismissing women from employment for marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth and providing free childbirth services and healthcare for both mother and child (Wells and Bergnehr, nd). The birthrate slowly rose over the subsequent decades, only to decline with the introduction of modern contraception in the mid-1960s (Sweden SE 2003). Sweden again registered below replacement fertility rates in 1968, followed by Denmark and Finland. In the 1970s, the Swedish birthrate declined to 1.6 children per woman. Then, the pattern reversed dramatically. By 1990, Sweden’s birthrate was 2.1, one of the highest in Western Europe. The Swedish experience contradicted conventional wisdom about fertility and the inevitability of population decline.


The only other policy response concerned immigration. From the 1950s to the end of the 1960s, immigration came mainly from other Nordic countries and from southern Europe, principally Yugoslavia, Greece, West Germany, Turkey, Great Britain, Poland, and Italy. Labor migration was the principal form: immigrants seeking better working conditions and pay. With changing economic conditions in the 1970s, the relatively open immigration was ended with tighter restrictions. Subsequently, the major exception for limited immigration was for cases of political oppression. This pattern only changed in late 1980s and early 1990s, when the numbers increased.

According to one source (

By 2001…“476,000 foreign citizens were living in Sweden. In other words, every 20th person… is a foreign citizen and every tenth was born outside the country. The largest group are the Finns, of whom there are some 100,000. The second largest group is from Iraq with 36,000, followed by Norwegians 33,000, Danes 26,000, Yugoslavs 21,000, Bosnians 20,000, Germans 17,000, and Poles 15,000.”

Sweden is a member of the European Union, and a participant in the Schengen Agreement, in which it has open borders with other member states. Like Germany, Sweden is a destination country for people fleeing war in the Middle East.

Pro-natal Policies

As a highly urbanized, industrialized nation-state with high female participation in the workforce and politics, Sweden exemplifies a highly modern nation. Sweden also has considerable premarital cohabitation, a high divorce and separation rate, which usually associated with reduced fertility. Sweden’s policy response to the perceived post-pill fertility decline was to increase family allowances slightly and institute maternity leaves for mothers and eventually for fathers.

In contrast to stable low fertility in Russia or Germany, Sweden has volatile or “roller-coaster” fertility (Hoorens et al. 2011:72). Sweden is atypical because it enjoys pro-cyclical fertility, meaning more births occur when the economy is growing (Hoorens et al. 2011: 59). Neoclassical economic theory predicts a countercyclical relationship in which career and children are alternatives. In Sweden, family and career are compliments. In the 1990s, Swedish fertility rates declined in line with other European countries, mirroring worsening economic trends, the less generous family allowances, and leave provisions (Hoem and Hoem 1996). Sweden then re-experienced “roller-coaster fertility,” rebounding from a low of 1.5 in 1999 to 1.9 by 2008 (Hoorens et al. 2011:72).

Sweden is a child-friendly country. In Sweden, most preschools are open from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm, and the government is investing in additional hours (Nordfors 2013). Fees cannot exceed 3% of family income (ibid), and families receive a monthly allowance equivalent to 80% of the maximum monthly cost of 1.287 of Swedish Krona (about 196 USD) (Åkerström 2016). The monthly allowance (barnbidrag) continues until the child reaches 16 years of age (ibid). Furthermore, the first 525 h of preschool (förskola) per year is provided free of charge (Nordfors 2013). Each child is entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when they are born or adopted to be used from birth to age 8. Two months of paid leave is reserved for each parent (is nontransferrable), and parents get an equality bonus (jämställdhetsbonus) if 270 days of the bonus are divided equally between mother and father (Åkerström 2016).

Swedish women desire both families and career (Hoem and Hoem 1996). The pro-natal policies of both Sweden and France focused on reconciling work and family (AICGS 2015), and both have enjoyed close to replacement rate fertility. Swedish social policy, which encourages an egalitarian dual-earner household where both partners share in raising children, has led to one of the highest fertility rates in Europe (Hoorens et al. 2011: 74–75), a halt in the postponement of first childbearing at younger ages (Andersson and Kolk 2011), and made second and even third births more common, especially among women in professions with the most flexible working conditions (Hoorens et al. 2011: 75).


A familiar analogy to the motivations to have children can be found in Frederick Herzberg’s theory of work motivation (Herzberg et al. 1959). Herzberg found that one set of factors motivated people, and a second completely different set of factors de-motivated them. A similar dichotomy also appears in the motivations whether or not to have children.


Herzberg’ motivators were intangible, abstract, and sometimes even ethereal, like self-actualization, achievement, and growth. The reasons for the natural urges to have children sound equally intangible and abstract are the desire to be a parent, wanting a child to love (Morgan and Taylor 2006), a biological urge to pass on one’s genes, and/or a desire to please parents.


De-motivators in Herzberg’s model were much more tangible, like salary, security, and working conditions. The de-motivators for having children are also tangible, like the high cost to raise a child, high unemployment, economic insecurity, and social instability. In Herzberg’s model, favorable conditions in the de-motivators, like a good salary, job security, and good working conditions, alone were not enough to motivate. Only motivators could do that. But unfavorable de-motivators, like an inadequate salary, job insecurity, and unfavorable working conditions, may quench the influence of motivators. Likewise, favorable conditions among the de-motivators, such as adequate money, economic security, peace, and prosperity, alone are unlikely to motivate a woman to give birth. But unfavorable de-motivators can cancel the influence of motivators. Conditions which make it difficult to reconcile family and career are de-motivators, such as the lack of affordable childcare, fierce competition for scarce jobs, inflexible job requirements, and economic insecurity. De-motivators can cause people who otherwise might want a child decide not to have one.

De-motivators can make motherhood appear impossible. Women in their prime childbearing years are young. They are still pursuing higher education, or hold entry level positions. At this stage of life, the costs of pregnancy and childcare can appear insurmountable. A low fertility trap springs from the inability of women to harmonize career and family obligations (Morgan and Taylor 2006).

Economic uncertainty is another potent de-motivator. The onset of sub-replacement fertility in Europe coincided with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Rapidly falling fertility in Eastern Europe occurred at the demise of communism. Women rationally reduce their exposure to economic uncertainty by delaying pregnancy (Kohler et al. 2002: 652).

Incentives alone are inadequate. Germany and Sweden provide similar monthly allowances for each child, yet fertility in Germany is among Europe’s lowest and Sweden the highest. One major difference is that Sweden has from the 1930s sought to reconcile work and motherhood. Swedish childcare is affordable and available the entire workday, so a woman can have both a child and a career. The Swedish built incentives into their system to encourage male parents to share in child-raising responsibilities. In contrast to the Swedes, who reconciled career and family, in Germany childcare is only half day. The German burden of childcare falls on the mother. German women find it difficult to reconcile career and family. Work and family are alternatives, and many German women understandably pick career.

If development is the best contraceptive, it works far too well in developed countries. Women understandably want higher education and careers. Policies which help women reconcile career and family help low fertility countries escape the low fertility trap.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.East Tennessee State UniversityJohnson CityUSA