- Childlessness in Europe: Contexts, Causes, and Consequences ed. by Michaela Kreyenfeld, Dirk Konietzka
This open access book, edited by Michaela Kreyenfeld (Hertie School of Governance, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research) and Dirk Konietzka (University of Technology, Braunschweig), provides a comprehensive overview of childlessness in Europe. Against the background of (re)increasing levels of childlessness in many European countries, the editors bring together demographers and sociologists who examine its contexts, causes and consequences.
The majority of articles in the book are country-specific analyses, covering the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. In addition, an article on childlessness in the United States puts European countries in perspective. Unfortunately, the book does not include any studies on Southern, Central or Eastern European countries.
Its main strength is its comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach, which consists in bringing together (1) quantitative demographic analysis of the socio-economic determinants of childlessness in European countries, (2) qualitative studies on fertility ideals and life course plans, (3) a descriptive overview of assisted reproductive technologies, and (4) a discussion of the consequences of childlessness in terms of well-being, old-age income and intergenerational transfers.
The country-specific studies draw on various national data sources that provide substantial detailed information on educational patterns, employment and occupation histories, etc. In addition, most of the data sources provide information about partners, if existing. In most articles childlessness is analysed from a woman's perspective, mostly for methodological reasons, but information about the existence of a (cohabiting) partner and his/her socioeconomic background is often taken into account in the analysis. This couple perspective leads to several interesting results. When comparing the different national studies, a common point that emerges is that childless women are increasingly partnered. As suggested by several authors, continuous birth postponement due to career investments, difficulties combining work and family life, and unstable labour market conditions may incur the risk for women of ending up (involuntarily) childless; however, these women are still often with a partner.
It therefore seems that, in many cases, lack of a suitable partner is not the main reason for birth postponement and childlessness. For many women, barriers to realizing fertility intentions seem instead institutional. A clear distinction between institutional and individual determinants of childlessness is, however, quite impossible, as is distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary childlessness. This definition problem is highlighted in detail at several places in the book. Bernardi and Keim's qualitative study of working women's life course plans clearly illustrates a potential overlap between individual and institutional aspects of childlessness. [End Page 150]
The couple approach also reveals that there is a gender bias in the degree to which partner status, education and occupation explain childlessness. For France, Köppen, Mazuy and Toulemon find that for men, the differences in childlessness by socio-economic group disappear almost entirely once partner status is controlled for, while for women, the relative differences diminish but remain considerable. In the partnered women group, childlessness rates are still higher among higher-educated women and those with higher-level occupations. It seems that low social status and unstable economic conditions hinder men more than women when it comes to finding a partner, but they hinder partnered women more than partnered men when it comes to having children. Meanwhile, policy implication remains the same for both sexes: more stable labour market conditions would make it easier for both women and men to start a family, have children.
The main weakness of the book is that only one article compares trends in childlessness across a large set of European countries. Bringing together data from 28 European countries, Tomas Sobotka demonstrates that the proportion of childlessness is U-shaped within the majority of European countries, with childlessness at its highest in the 1900 and 1970 cohorts and lowest for the 1940 cohorts. German-speaking countries have outstandingly high levels of childlessness for the younger cohorts, while CEE countries have the lowest levels, even though it is likely that childlessness will increase significantly in these countries...