Economic changes, technological chances, changing gender roles, postmodernisation and changes to the position of children all help explain why the birth rate and total fertility rates in England and Wales have halved over the last 100 years.
This post explores why. It has primarily been written for students studying the families and households topic on the A-level sociology syllabus.
Trends in the Birth Rate and Total Fertility Rate
- Between 1901 to 2010 the birth rate declined from 29 per thousand to 13 per thousand
- The Total Fertility Rate has also seen a general decline in the last century, from a peak of almost 3 babies per woman in the 1960s to a low point of about 1.6 babies per woman in 2001.
- However, the last 15 years have witnessed an increase back up to 2 babies per woman.
Explaining the long term decline in the birth rate
Globally, the general trend is that the wealthier the country, the lower the birth rate. It would seem that economic growth and rising living standards mean adults have fewer children. Part of the reason for this is that higher living standards mean better quality housing, better nutrition, better education and better medical care – all of which reduce the infant mortality rate, meaning that parents have fewer ‘replacement babies’ to make up for those who die before their first birthday.
A second factor here is related to Functionalism – as Functionalists see it, as societies evolve and become more complex, other institutions take over key functions of the family – men go into wage labour, which gets taxed, which then translates into schools and hospitals and pensions – the last century in the UK has seen the emergence of all of these institutions – people no longer need children to look after them in their old age, or to work the fields, other institutions do this, so people have fewer children.
A final way economic factors can reduce the birth rate are that people are so busy working they don’t have time to start families – which is the case in contemporary Japan.
A criticism of economic arguments is that they are deterministic, people don’t just react to economic changes like robots, and they also appear a little ‘cold’ – It implies that people only have children for selfish, economic reasons.
The development of contraceptive technologies in the 1960s – Namely the contraceptive pill – gave rise to what Anthony Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’ = Sex becomes detached from reproduction. Also, importantly, The Pill gave women control of their reproduction and they could choose when to have children. There is no direct correlation between the invention of The Pill and the decline in the fertility rate – in fact the Baby Boom of the 1960s came immediately after The Pill’s invention, and most women clearly still choose to have babies, but this technological change does explain why women have babies later in life and have fewer children.
Other technological innovations which have led to people having babies later in life are IVF and the freezing of eggs – together these technologies mean women can delay having children into their 40s, extending the ‘natural’ period of fertility much later than is traditionally the case.
An attendant analysis point here is that for IVF to be available for all women, it requires the state to fund it, otherwise this would be prohibitively expensive for couples with low incomes, so for this technological factor to have an impact, it needs to combine with political rights and a wealthy state.
Changes in the Role of Women
Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck both regard this as the most important factor explaining the decline in the birth rate. Because women how have formal legal equality with men, and increased educational opportunities (girls are now outperforming boys at school), women now make up half the work force, and this has led to changes in attitudes to family life – Career now comes first for many women, and childbearing is delayed by an average of ten years compared to in the 1950s. Women now typically have their first babies in their 30s, not their 20s and up 1/4 women are expected to remain childless.
As an evaluation point here – it is important not to exaggerate the advances women have made, when the children come along, it is still predominantly women who do the majority of childcare and housework and suffer the consequences in terms of their career.
All of the above changes are part of the broader process of posmodernisation – The decline of traditional norms and values such as those associated with religions mean that contraception is no longer viewed in a stigmatised way and declining birth rates also reflect individualisation – the fact that we put our own needs first and it is acceptable to choose not to have children.
A criticism of Postmodernism is that many people simply don’t choose to have children. Many people are forced into living an uncertain, unpredictable life where having children may not be a possibility or simply not be rational or affordable.
Changes in the position of children
Until the late 19th century children were an asset to their parents because they could be sent out to work. Today, laws protect children from working and dictate that they should spend 18 years in education, and thus children have become an economic liability – they are a net drain on parents’ income. This puts people off having children.
People also have fewer children because we now live in a ‘child centred society’ – It is expected that children be the centre of family life, and parents are expected to spend more money (£250K is the average cost) and more time than ever engaged with their children – it is easier to do this with fewer children.
Explaining the recent increase in the birth rates.
Three factors which could explain this include…
- Increasing immigration – immigrant mothers have more children (accounts for approx. 20% of the increase)
- Reduction in child poverty – New Labour increased welfare payments to poorer families – easier to have children
- Advances in birth technologies – increase in IVF – more women in their 40s having babies
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