"Population Bomb", Two-Child-Norm and the Decline of Third Births. An Amendment to the Theory of the Second Demographic Transition

Detlev Lück, Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB)
Martin Bujard, Federal Institute for Population Research

While the decrease in family sizes is mostly associated with the first demographic transition, the Second Demographic Transition is mainly associated with an increase in childlessness. However, parity-specific analyses show that during the recent fertility decline both processes can be observed. Recent decomposition analyses (Bujard/Sulak 2016) even reveal that, at least in Germany and the UK, the decrease of higher order births has a stronger effect on the decline of cohort fertility than the increase in childlessness. From a theoretical perspective, this is remarkable because the Second Demographic Transition is expected to go along with increasing diversity of family forms, as an expression of individual self-realisation and weakening norms. Instead, empirical research reveals an increasing standardisation of family sizes and a two-child-norm that is well-established throughout Europe and presumably linked to the change in fertility. This paper investigates empirically and debates theoretically the reasons for these findings. Our, partly quantitative partly qualitative, content analyses of newspaper archives from the 1950s and 1960s in Germany and the UK reveal a number of public debates that take critical standpoints against large families. The most outstanding debate is the severe anxiety of overpopulation threatening the survival of mankind, referred to as the “population bomb” (already several years before Paul Ehrlich’s book). This debate and others start to peak in the years before the start of fertility decline in Europe. This suggests that fear of overpopulation in the early 1960s has resulted in the social construction of a two-child-norm and an intensified discrimination of large families, according to which three or more children indicate an undisciplined and irresponsible generative behaviour, inadequate for people in modern societies.

“PopulationBomb”, Two-Child-Norm and the Decline of Third Births

AnAmendment to the Theory of the Second Demographic Transition

 

Thefertility decline in European societies over the course of the last fivedecades, related to the Second Demographic Transition, has in some Europeancountries come to an end. This includes Germany, for which we re-analyse thedecline, differentiated into parities. The parity-specific analyses reveal thatthe decline is linked to two changes in fertility behaviour: The number ofwomen remaining childless strongly increases and the number of women havingthree or more births strongly decreases (while the parities one and two remainroughly stable). These two processes occur in the same period of time; howeverthey evolve asynchronously, which suggests that they at least partly need to beexplained in different ways. This challenges the theoretical explanations ofthe fertility decline which, as we argue, for the most part assume one coherentdemographic phenomenon.

 

 

Recentdecomposition analyses (Bujard/Sulak 2016) reveal that, at least in Germany andthe UK, the decrease of higher order births has a stronger effect on thedecline of cohort fertility than the increase in childlessness. Furthermore,decrease of higher order births is particularly strong in the early part of thefertility decline, while the increase in childlessness becomes relevant later;in East Germany the latter process is only visible among the post-reunificationcohorts. This also challenges theoretical explanations because, as we argue,most approaches (such as individualisation, value change or opportunity costs)give plausible explanations particularly for emerging childlessness but not forthe decrease of third births. An underlying assumption in the debate seems tobe that the decline in higher order births and the decrease in family sizes arecharacteristic for the first demographic transition only, while the SecondDemographic Transition is mainly characterised by an increase in childlessness,which is untrue. We therefore perceive the need to strengthen the theoreticalexplanations of the decline in third births, as an under-investigated highlyrelevant component of the fertility decline.

Thestarting point for the explanation we suggest is the two-child-norm which hasbeen identified repeatedly. In recent decades, the number children consideredas ideal by Europeans is increasingly standardised around two (Sobotka/Beaujouan2014). This, again, is remarkable from a theoretical point of view, since mosttheories would expect social norms to weaken, the individual freedom of choiceto increase and the heterogeneity of family forms to grow accordingly. So, theemergence and strengthening of a two-child-norm in Europe and the intensified discriminationof large families may explain the reason why Europeans have stopped having morethan two children in the 1960s. However, it calls for an explanation for theemergence of this two-child-norm.

Insearch of this missing link in the theoretical explanation of the fertilitydecline, we turn to an analysis of newspapers form the 1950s and 1960s, inorder to identify public debates that could have constructed a two-child-norm.We use archives of leading national newspapers in Germany (Die Zeit, Der Spiegel,FAZ, BILD) and the UK (The Observer, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Express,).We start with a qualitative content analysis of one newspaper archive in eachcountry to answer the question which debates occur. The debate that we find tobe, by far, most prevalent and relevant is the severe anxiety of overpopulationthreatening the survival of mankind, referred to as the “demographic bomb” or“population bomb”. Leading intellectuals, journalists, scientists and politicalleaders warn that without a world-wide establishment of contraception and adecrease of fertility rates, the world population would outgrow the availableresources of the planet within few decades. This debate is, among others, complementedby argumentations that in modern societies, people can be expected torationally reflect the consequences of their behaviour, including their generativebehaviour, and act accordingly in a responsible and self-disciplined way.Accordingly, having three or more children (and contributing to the increasingworld overpopulation) is associated with a lack of self-discipline, irresponsibility,and instinct-driven behaviour, characteristic for uneducated, immoralunderclass people. We enhance the qualitative by quantitative content analyses,assessing the frequency of particular keywords over the course of time, showingthat the debates take place particularly in the years before the start offertility decline in Europe. This suggests that fear of overpopulation in theearly 19060s has resulted in the social construction of a two-child-norm and anintensified discrimination of large families, which again can explain thedecrease of higher order births and thereby a very relevant share of thefertility decline linked to the Second Demographic Transition.

 

 

Publications

Bujard, M. & Sulak, H.(2016): Mehr Kinderlose oder weniger Kinderreiche? in: Kölner Zeitschrift fürSoziologie und Sozialpsychologie 68(3): 487-514.

Sobotka, T.;Beaujouan, É. (2014): Two is best? The persistence of a two-child family idealin Europe. in: Population and Development Review 40(3): 391-419.

Presented in Session 1155: Fertility