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The Low Fertility Trap Hypothesis. Forces that May Lead to Further Postponement and Fewer Births in Europe


  • Maria Rita Testa
  • Vegard Skirbekk
  • Wolfgang Lutz


This paper starts from the assessment that there is no good theory in the social sciences that would tell us whether fertility in low-fertility countries is likely to recover in the future, stay around its current level or continue to fall. This question is key to the discussion whether or not governments should take action aimed at influencing the fertility rate. To enhance the scholarly discussion in this field, the paper introduces a clearly defined hypothesis which describes plausible self-reinforcing mechanisms that would result, if unchecked, in a continued decrease of the number of births in the countries affected. This hypothesis has three components: a demographic one based on the negative population growth momentum, i.e., the fact that fewer potential mothers in the future will result in fewer births; a sociological one based on the assumption that ideal family size for the younger cohorts is declining as a consequence of the lower actual fertility they see in previous cohorts; and an economic one based on the first part of Easterlin’s (1980) relative income hypothesis, namely, that fertility results from the combination of aspirations and expected income, and assuming that aspirations of young adults are on an increasing trajectory while the expected income for the younger cohorts declines, partly as a consequence of population ageing induced by low fertility. All three factors would work towards a downward spiral in births in the future. If there is reason to assume that such mechanisms will indeed be at work, then this should strengthen the motivation of governments to take immediate action (possibly through policies addressing the tempo effect) in order to still escape from the expected trap.

Suggested Citation

  • Maria Rita Testa & Vegard Skirbekk & Wolfgang Lutz, 2006. "The Low Fertility Trap Hypothesis. Forces that May Lead to Further Postponement and Fewer Births in Europe," Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, Vienna Institute of Demography (VID) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, vol. 4(1), pages 167-192.
  • Handle: RePEc:vid:yearbk:v:4:y:2006:i:1:p:167-192

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Raquel Fernández & Alessandra Fogli, 2006. "Fertility: The Role of Culture and Family Experience," Journal of the European Economic Association, MIT Press, vol. 4(2-3), pages 552-561, 04-05.
    2. Stutzer, Alois, 2004. "The role of income aspirations in individual happiness," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 54(1), pages 89-109, May.
    3. repec:cai:poeine:pope_601_0099 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Robert Shimer, 2001. "The Impact of Young Workers on the Aggregate Labor Market," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(3), pages 969-1007.
    5. William Axinn & Marin Clarkberg & Arland Thornton, 1994. "Family influences on family size preferences," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 31(1), pages 65-79, February.
    6. Skans, Oskar Nordstrom, 2005. "Age effects in Swedish local labor markets," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 86(3), pages 419-426, March.
    7. Wolfgang Lutz & Vegard Skirbekk, 2005. "Policies Addressing the Tempo Effect in Low-Fertility Countries," Population and Development Review, The Population Council, Inc., vol. 31(4), pages 699-720.
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    Cited by:

    1. García-Manglano, Javier & Nollenberger, Natalia & Sevilla, Almudena, 2014. "Gender, Time-Use, and Fertility Recovery in Industrialized Countries," IZA Discussion Papers 8613, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    2. Mizuki Komura, 2013. "Tax reform and endogenous gender bargaining power," Review of Economics of the Household, Springer, vol. 11(2), pages 175-192, June.
    3. Maoyong Fan & Yanhong Jin, 2015. "Singleton status and childhood obesity: Investigating effects and mechanisms Status :," Economics Bulletin, AccessEcon, vol. 35(4), pages 2126-2140.
    4. Yong Cai, 2013. "China's New Demographic Reality: Learning from the 2010 Census," Population and Development Review, The Population Council, Inc., vol. 39(3), pages 371-396, September.

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