Stopping, Spacing and Postponing in the British Fertility Transition: Insights from Census Data

Eilidh Garrett, University of Essex
Hannaliis Jaadla, University of Cambridge
Alice Reid, University of Cambridge
Ian Timæus, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The orthodox story about fertility decline during the demographic transition is that of a move from natural, ‘uncontrolled’ fertility to a regime where couples embark on childbearing soon after marriage and stop once they reach a desired or ‘target’ number of children. In this paper we use complete count individual-level census data for England and Wales from 1851 to 1911 to examine whether the initial stages of the British fertility transition fit this pattern. We use three different methods to test for the presence of stopping behaviour and examine the evidence for an alternative pathway to fertility decline characterised by spacing (delaying the next birth to ensure a preferred birth interval) or postponing (avoiding conception until circumstances are more favourable).

First, we calculate age-specific fertility rates using the own children method, for each census year and for regional and social groups. Second, we use the age of the youngest child as an indicator of stopping behaviour, exploring proportions of women with the youngest child over a certain age (eg 5 or 10 years), by age of mother. This also allows us to compare different census years as well as regional patterns and different social groups. Our final method is only available for the 1911 census which asked about the children ever born and dead children of married women. We impute the ages of dead and absent children and thereby reconstruct full birth histories which can be used to estimate duration-specific fertility rates, parity progression ratios, and indices of the length of birth intervals. Initial explorations suggest that widespread stopping at low parities may only have emerged later in the twentieth century. Results for regions and social groups will be produced and the implications for theories of fertility control will be discussed.

Presented in Session 82: New Perspectives on Fertility Transition