Fertility decline, family crisis, and inevitability of depopulation in Europe in the first half of the 21st century (sociological approach)

Translated by Demographia.ru | Original version in Russian

Prof. Anatoly Antonov, Department Chair of Family Sociology and Demography at the Moscow State University

Before its widespread decline in the 19th century, the European bith rate was high enough to exceed the level of mortality and reliably provide the population growth that was the basis of rapid development of the market-industrial capitalism.

This population growth in Europe was never considered as a threat to the human race’s welfare [1], never was called “overpopulation” or “demographic explosion”; although in different concepts of  the Malthusian doctrine it was associated with the growth of the poor, a connection between the wholesomeness of the urban industrialism and the orientation of capitalism towards mass production (and, thereby, to mass society) was too obvious.

Up to the 20th century, the capitalism dexterously and gratuitously used the system of values and sociocultural norms, including norms of the large family, which had been created by the millennia of the familistic civilization. And this life-critical heritage—a moral capital of the past ages, one may say—revealed an incredible vitality.

Despite the practice of  far-from-moral capitalistic relations, the power of the familism (family altruism) seemed inexhaustible. Therefore, even in economic theories of  capitalist production, the inflow of labor was taken as a perennial variable: it was impossible to doubt that it would ever run out.

Taking care of that inflow and the need for some kind of social control that can provide a flow of human resources required for development of production was outside the scope of  science and could become neither a scientific nor yet a social problem.

This is not surprising in  the context of population growth and constancy of birth rates. So, during 1800–1880 the birth rate in Europe kept equal to 38 births per 1000 population; it began to decline only in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Although in some countries the decline was observed a bit earlier: in Finland — since the mid-18th century (from 45.3‰ to 33.1‰), in France — since the end of the 18th century (from 33‰ to 21.6‰). in the 1850s the birth rate decreased in Sweden (by 21 percent); in the 1860s — in Spain (by 10 percent); in the 1870s — by 21.2 percent in the UK, by 13 percent in Germany, Hungary, Holland, Belgium and Italy, by 10 percent in Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. [2]

In the first half of the 20th century, the birth rate in Europe declined from 32.5‰ in 1900 to 20‰ in  1940; down to 14–15‰ in Western European countries (in Austria to 13.3‰, in  Sweden to 14.2‰), to 16–18‰ in Central Europe, to 25–27‰ in the Eastern and Southern Europe. [3]

Before the beginning of the 1960s, the European population declined due to the partially unmet need (which yet existed at that time) for 3 or more children, and, therefore, the decline rate was liable to variations caused by economic circumstances and living conditions of families.

The post-war “baby boom” in  the late 1940–50s was the result of more full realization of the need for 3–4 children; but it was in no way an increase of that need. With many new married couples and gradually raising standards of living, the then existing need for children was more fully met, but at the same time it, though slowly, continued to weaken itself.

It is difficult to determine in what periods of time a particular type of the need for children was predominated (since the need was not measured, directly or indirectly, by demographers), but the TFR (total fertility rate) figures show that during the first quarter of the 20th century the need for children in large families in Europe continued to decrease down to its lower limit (to 5 children).

In the 1930-40s, the WW2 blocked possibilities of full meeting the need for many children; having less children becomes a practice of necessity, which resulted in predomination of  medium-sized families (with 3–4 children), and then the need for many children ceased to be a Europeans’ leading need.

An analysis, carried out within the theory of  reproductive behavior from the standpoint of familistic and pro-natalistic school of thoughts, shows that the historical process of dying-out of the large family, i.e. of the social norms related to large families and their needs for 5 or more children, once begun and being associated with the breakdown of  sociocultural norms of high fertility (breaking the contraception and abortion taboos, etc. [4]), has a tendency to complete refusal to marry, to live a family life, to have children.

Strictly speaking, we can state only the fact that the need for many children, which had been formed through millennia, is dying out, and this leads to a fertility decline, up to childlessness.

Hence, while the fertility declines, the science conventionally fixes the decline stages, which related to the phases (also conventional) of weakening of reproductive norms and needs for children.

Consequently, it is not crucial, though possible and somewhat convenient, to determine precise periods of medium- and small-sized families predomination (including some detailed sub-periods for each family type). Different numbers of children in families are only conventional marks of the overall process of historical dying-out of many-children families, with a tendency to the total childlessness.

Therefore, it is pointless to speak about any “transition”—from “high” to “low” fertility, from “having many children” to “childlessness,” from “traditional” family to “modern”, etc. There is no “transition” to something definite, lower or higher, but there is an obvious process of destruction of the old system of social norms. And in the course of  this destruction, or regress, it is possible only to state conventionally the fact of existing of some stages, phases, levels. [5]

With the help of its leverage (science and policy), the society can, when it wants to, inhibit the family and fertility crisis and fix it on an acceptable (but artificially maintained) level. And it will achieve that sooner or later.

It is, unfortunately, an illusion created by the “transition” terminology that the history tends to a good event or phenomenon that will finally crown the whole sequence of  intermediate stages. On the contrary, the terminology of crisis of the familistic system attracts attention to the fact that there is no obstacle in  this destructive way but a special policy of resistance aimed to increase the number of families with 3–4 children, to avoid depopulation, for example.

The whole complexity of the problem is certainly in the lack of desire in society (and in government bodies as well) to pursue a policy promoting medium-sized families, which is a direct consequence of the fact that having no more than 1 or 2 children has become the most popular family life pattern. This pattern, as a new reality, creates a breeding ground for both man-in-the-street and scientific conceptions of anti-natalism.

In the second half of the 20th century, people began to discard their need for the family with 3–4 children, but in 1950–60s scientists could not measure this process directly. However, we can estimate the scale of dissemination of the new, 2-children, type of family's need (or, to be more precise, the scale of further dying out of the large family norms) by the degree of realization of socio-biological fertility potential.

According to Russian demographer Vladimir Borisov, in  Europe in the 1960s the realization of the hypothetical minimum of natural fertility (when neither abortion nor contraception is in use)—HMNF—decreased to 40 percent. We can suppose that in the late 19th/early 20th century the realization of the HMNF was much higher, ~60–70 percent (if the fertility potential is about 55–60 per mil and the total fertility rate is 38 per mil on average, the HMNF realization equals 63 percent). [6]

It should be noted that in  the 1970s the realization of the HMNF in Europe decreased to 30 percent, and in the late 1990's even to 20 percent. So, the lesser the HMNF realization, the more widespread the practice of contraception and abortion becomes, and it always happens when an already low need for children is being weakened.

The figures of the TFR in  1960–1970s show how the need for the 1–2 children family was spread in many European countries. For example, in Austria, it was a decline from 2.79 to 1.91, in England—from 2.66 to 2.03, in Belgium—from 2.53 to 2.08, in  Denmark—from 2.54 to 1.92, in Finland—from 2.71 to 1.59, in Sweden—from 2.17 to 1.89. Note that all the cases the TFR fell below the replacement level—2.1 children per woman over her lifetime.

In 1980–1990s, when there was no special pro-family policy, the number of one-child families grew dramatically, and it led to further diminishing of family values, to weakening of motives for marriage, to increasing the number of cohabitations and divorces.

The eventual result can be estimated from the European TFRs of 1993–2004. the figures reveal the effect of  reproductive attitudes being declined as well as of the family’s and personality’s need for children that is reducing too.

In the EU-15, the TFR averaged 1.47–1.52; the TFR of the EU-25 countries was 1.52–1.50, i.e. almost 0.5 child less than in 1970s (0.25 average decline per decade).

In 1993, the lowest TFRs were observed in Italy (1.25), Spain (1,27), Germany (1.28), and Greece (1.34); in 2004—in Slovenia (1,22), Poland and Czech Republic (1.23), Latvia (1.24), Slovakia (1,25), Lithuania (1.26), Hungary (1,28), and Romania, Bulgaria and Greece (1,29). [7]

Surely, a more accurate picture of the fertility decline can be seen from sociological measurements of  reproductive attitudes, but such information is available not for all countries. With this TFR decline, it is also of interest to compare between the dynamics of childbearing attitudes and the dynamics of the need for children.

But first, let us look at some figures for the European Union. On January 1, 2003, the EU15 has 378.5 million population (EU25 has 453 million). the natural increase of 0.8 people per 1000 population per year barely exceeded the boundary of  depopulation (in 3 of 15 countries, a population decline was observed; in 5 countries, births and deaths were close to balance against each other).

After the EU had been enlarged to 25 countries, the natural increase was declined to 0.5 people per mil, because most of the new members were from Eastern Europe, where the increase was –1.1 people per mil per 10 countries. [8]

For all European countries the picture was as critical as for the EU: 11 births and 10 deaths per 1000 population in Northern and Western Europe; 10 and 9 in Southern Europe; 9 and 14 in Eastern Europe (among 10 countries of this region only Poland had a positive natural increase). [9]

The TFR figures show how far the fertility decline has gone: 1.2 in Eastern Europe (i.e. 0.9 lower than the replacement level), 1.3 in Southern Europe. the situation is a little bit better in Northern and Western Europe (1.6), but, according to surveys on reproductive behavior of families and individuals, the number of births will keep on decreasing in this region too.

However, when demographers, including UN experts, make their projections of the population and fertility, they do not take into account the declining trends in reproductive attitudes and families' need for children. As a result, the decline rates of the predicted parameters in Europe are underestimated (see Table 1).

Table 1.
Total fertility rate in  the EU-15
according to the  World Population Prospects: the 2002 Revision. Medium variant

Country The average number of births per woman over her reproductive period
2000—2005 2020—2025  2045—2050
Austria 1.28  1.45 1.85
Belgium 1.66  1.73  1.85
Denmark 1.77  1.80 1.85
Finland 1.73  1.74  1.85
France 1.89  1.88 1.85
Germany 1.35 1.53  1.85
Greece 1.27 1.45  1.85
Irland 1.90 1.85  1.85
Italy 1.23 1.45  1.85
Luxemburg 1.73  1.78 1.85
The Netherlands 1.72  1.77  1.85
Portugal 1.45  1.43 1.85
Spain 1.15  1.42 1.85
Sweden 1.64 1.82 1.85
Great Britain 1.60 1.69  1.85 

The projection-makers hope, rather groundlessly, that the TFR in all European countries will reach 1.85. Apparently, they suppose the childbearing motivations would naturally increase and the number of children in families would fluctuate at the level of 2, as if the need for two children would keep constant. This assumption requires specific reasoning and should be confirmed by results of sociological surveys.

If we look at the TFR evolution, we can see that since the beginning of the 20th century, up to the year of 2000, the number of births in the EU steadily decreased from 3.5–5 to 1.3–2.0 in “conventional” generations as well as in “real” cohorts of women born between 1941–1950 and 1961–1965.

The total number of births by the born-in-1965 women to their age of 50 years is preliminary estimated to be 2.21 in Ireland, 2.03 in the U.S., 1.99 in France, 1.96 in Hungary and Sweden, 1.92 in  Czech Republic, 1,91 in  Denmark, 1,90 in  Finland, 1,86 in  England and Wales, 1,83 in  Portugal, 1,76 in  the Netherlands, 1,73 in  Greece,1,65 in Switzerland and Russia, 1,63 in Spain, 1,61 in Austria, 1,52 in Italy, 1,51 in Germany. [10]

An especially marked drop in the number of births per woman is observed in 1970–1999, mainly due to weakening of the need for children among mothers under 25. in the next age and marital generations, the number of births is reduced under the influence of  decrease in reproductive attitude, as can be judged indirectly by the reduced portion of births of third or subsequent children.

For example, in Italy, according to a survey of 1988, the highest percentage births of third or subsequent children was observed among 40-years-old women born in 1917—42 percent; about 33–35 percent—among mothers born in 1922, 1927, 1932, and 1937; 28 percent—among mothers born in 1942 year of birth; 23 percent—among mothers born in 1957.

In Spain, among 35-39-years-old mothers born in  1955–1960 there were 21.4 percent of births of third or subsequent children; in  Austria, the same percentage was 19.2%. [11]

The process of extinction of the need for 3 or more children becomes more evident if we decompose the TFR in order of births. For example, 2.0 average births per woman in the U.S. (in 1996–1999) are composed of 0.5 births of the third or subsequent child, 0.7 births of the second child, and 0.8 births of the first child.

The same figures in Finland (TFR = 1.7) are 0,4/0,6/0,7; in the Netherlands—0.3/0.6/0.8; in Japan—0.2/0.5/0.6; in  Russia—0.1/0.4/0.7; in Spain—0.1/0.4/0.6. [12]

While the portion of the second births also decreases, the portion of the first births predominates, which means that the need for only one child becomes mass-distributed.

The TFR decline repeats the decrease in the ideal family size that is revealed from surveys' questionnaires (“How many children is it better to have in your family?”).

In 1950–1979, in Italy, Great Britain, and France the average ideal number of children decreased, respectively, from 2.8/2.8/2.9 to 2.1/2.3/2.5, which caused a decrease in  births during this period—from 2.5/2.7 /3.0 to 1.7/1.9/ 1.9.

In 1979, the ideal number's excess over the number of births per woman was as follows [13] :

  • Ireland—0.12 (3.62/3.50);
  • Denmark—0.70 (2.31/1.61);
  • the Netherlands—0.73 (2.29/1.56);
  • Belgium—0.46 (2.15/1.69);
  • Germany—0.57 (1.95/1.38).

Thus, the actual number of  children is always less than the ideal number, and, therefore, the future fertility dynamics can be predicted from the reproductive attitudes of young age and marriage cohorts.

The average ideal number of children in 9 European countries was 2.40 among women of 55 and older and 2.13 among 15–24-years old women (among men—2.27 and 2.18 respectively). [14]

20 years later, the ideal numbers decreased: while the EU-15 average was 2.14 in 2001 (see Figure 1), in Germany and Austria it reached a sensational 1.7.

Figure 1.
The ideal number of children
among 20–34-years-old women of the EU-15.

A decrease of the ideal number is also observed in younger cohorts—among women of 15–34 (see Figure 2).

Even more clearly this trend is expressed by the expected number of children (“How many children are you going to have?”). the most striking example is Austria, where women of 15–34 are going to have less than 1.5 children and the fertility, consequently, promises to decline further (see Figure 3).

Figures 2 and 3.
the ideal (2) and expected (3) number of children
among 20–34-years-old women
(solid line—the EU-15, dashed line—Austria)

According to a survey of  1996 (4,564 participants), 51.4 percent of the pollees were going to have two children, 21,3 percent—three or more. 43,8 percent of childless pollees were going to have one or less children; 12.5 percent— three or more. Among those who already had one child, 43 percent was going to have two; 10,2 percent— three or more.

The women with two children had the strongest orientations to have three or more children—14 percent; among those who already had three children, 8.8 percent was going to have more.

Thus, two-children attitudes among having-only-one-child persons are 8.4 percent less than in the entire sample; their three-or-more-children attitudes are almost 50 percent less.  [15]

Greece is a country where the TFR was kept 2.3 over 1960–1980 and where it dramatically decreased in the 1980–1990s, down to 1.32 in  1997. Some national surveys showed the expected number of 2.29 and the ideal number of 2.70.

An orientation towards the two-children family model was corroborated by a 1999 survey, in which 3,049 women and 1,026 men of the age of 18–50 were participated. the expected number of 2.3 was typical for most age cohorts (at the average, 10.9 percent of  women was going to have one child and less, 51.8 percent—two children, 32.6 percent—three or more).

Among childless men and women, about 50 percent were oriented towards two children, 20 percent—towards three or more, 7 percent—towards one or less. Among one-child women, 34.25 percent did not want any more children. Among two-children persons, 77 percent of women and 64 percent of men had fully satisfied their need for children.

Among all socio-economic factors (income, education, division of labor, urbanization), the women's employment is the strongest reason for insufficient realization of the expected number of children.

The factors that contribute to the coincidence of  the actual number of children with that of expected are as follows: separate rooms for all family members; household income; the expected number of children in the beginning of the marriage; the actual number of children in the families of the respondents' parents. [16]

In 1997, to study the stability of reproductive attitudes and the degree of their realization, 507 women among 1,924 15–44-years-old married women from the Greater Athens area who took part in 1983 national survey were selected for a re-polling (see Table 2).

Table 2.
Unrealized reproductive potential,
according to Greek fertility surveys: 1983, 1997

What was expected
in 1983
What was realized
15 years later,
in 1997
The number of children
expected to be born in the family
2.20 2.02
Percent of women who did not want to have any or any more children 60.2% 68.8%
Percent of women who were going to have one more child 22.3% 21.9%
Percent of women who were going to give birth to 2 children 7.3% 7.7%
Percent of women who were going to give birth to 3 or more children 2.8% 0.5%

Thus, if we sum up these figures, it appears that those who gave a birth were 2.3 percent fewer than those who intended to do it, and the number of those who did not gave a birth were 8.6 percent more than the number of those who did not want any more children. the bottom line is that 10.9 percent of  respondents did not fully realize their need for children (for various reasons—because of age-weakening of fertility, discrepancy between the needs of  individuals and families, etc.).

It is interesting that after 15 years the women who had not met their need for children changed their ideal numbers; moreover, the number of those who considered three or more children as their ideal number increased 10.5 percent, while the number of  those for whom the ideal number was 2 or less decreased 15.1 percent.

It is generally known that there is an inverse relation between the number of births in the family and such indicators as social status, profession, education, income, etc. This means that the future consistency of the current trends to improve life-style and living conditions, to expand women's employment, to increase welfare of  individuals and families, to spread of families where two spouses build a career will continue to lead—through changing the values of life—to further reducing of the family's and individual’s need for children, to family instability, to divorces, to the decrease of the portion of 2-and-more-children families, and to other crisis phenomena.

Reproductive behavior researches (with new methods of measuring values, attitudes, and motives for giving birth to children) conducted in the 1970s and 80s under my scientific supervision in 15 former Soviet republics (some of them are now members of the EU-25) show that the level of aspiration to individual achievement and personal career grows dramatically with increase of social status, income, educational level as well as professional women's employment.

in other words, the growth of out-of-family attitudes, caused by reducing values of family and children, makes us consider any change in living conditions and family life-cycle as inappropriate for giving birth to a child.

Therefore, the decrease in the number of children in the family as well as the fertility decline is explained not by financial and housing difficulties, but by the devaluation of the family lifestyle, by unpopularity of the family as a pattern of behavior in society, by considering motherhood and fatherhood as anti-values.

The collapse of these universal values, which ensure the existence of mankind in history as well as of alternation and continuity of generations, actually explains the reason why the need for children has been dying out (5 or more in the beginning of the 20th century, 3–4 in the middle, 2 or less in the end). [17]

If the value of the family and children is recognized as a priority in European countries, the family-and-fertility collapse can be stopped. Otherwise, i.e. if the individualistic values would not be limited in the social system, the family institution will continue on the downward path towards further elimination of the two-parent-and-several-children family with and growth of non-family forms of  marriage and partnership accompanied with increasing number of divorces, single mothers, etc.

Social researches of reproductive behavior of individuals and families conducted by sociologists and demographers of Russian familistic school of thought in 1970-2006 (V. Borisov, V. Medkov, V. Archangelsky, A. Kuzmin, O. Lebed, A. Noskova, A. Sinelnikov and others) revealed the socio-psychological mechanism of reducing the average number of  children in the family and, thereby, the reducing of the TFR.

The results of these researches convince us that if the whole system of life values of an individual is not pro-family oriented, any family situation will be estimated as unacceptable for meeting the whole need for children. Among groups with high levels of living standards and education, the negative influence of non-family orientations will overpower any improving of the possibility to meet the need for (still two) children.

For example, in 1978, there were about 7.4 percent of two-child mothers in Moscow who had not fully met their need for children and wanted to have one more child (in total, 59.4 percent of women were completely satisfied with the two-child family model; 32,2 percent were satisfied partially).

Four years later, in 1982, among 200 re-polled mothers (100 of them were going to have the third child, another 100 were not) there were only 25 percent of those who wanted the third child regardless of the circumstances and really had it; and among those who wanted a child under certain conditions, only 6.7 percent realized their reproductive attitude.

In a control group of 100 people who wanted to have the third child under no circumstances nobody gave birth to the third child.

A nationwide survey of 2000 showed that the situation became worse: only 5.1 percent of two-children women still wanted the third child. This means that 3–5 years later, only a quarter of the women would give birth to the third child; among the others, only 7 percent of two-children women were expected to have one more child.


Measurements of the need for children based on the “semantic differential” (SD) and a method suggested by me [18] showed that the need for the family with three children practically halved over the 25 years between the two surveys.

The SD, which expresses the the degree of non-acceptance of the three-children family pattern, practically doubled.

In 1978, the negative attitude to the third child was expressed by the SD of 2.89; in 2000 it equaled 5.03.

The need for the two-children family became about 20 times weaker — from 0.64 in 1978 to 5.38 in 2000.

The need for the single-child family remained the same, being sightly increased from the SD of 4.48 in 1978 to 4.27 in 2000.

And finally, the family without children became more attractive. Though in 1978 its SD=11.74 expressed almost complete negation, in 2000 it appeared to be strongly decreased (to 8,53).


The above mentioned data indicates the collapse of the need for the two-parent family with several children—not only in Russia, which has been depopulating since 1992, but also in Europe, where the TFRs and the expected numbers of children are similar to those in Russia.

It means that in 2007–2015, while the demographic potential is running low, most of European countries will include themselves in the “depopulational unity.”

Without a radical change of  the position of the family institution relative to the other institutions, without reorientation of the whole system of values from the individual to the family, the situation will not improve.


[1] Урланис Б. Ц. (Boris Urlanis)  Рост населения в Европе (Population growth in  Europe). М.1941.

According to the author's evaluation, the population of Europe within the borders of 1914 doubled from 1000 (56 million) to 1700 (119 million), increased more than 1.5 times from 1700 to 1800 (187 million), doubled from 1800 to 1890 (364 million). Totally, over 1700–1910, the population of Europe increased 3,7 times, or, in  other words, increased about 4 times over 200 years.

[2] Ibid. С.242.

[3] Ibid. С.276.

[4] Борисов В. А.(Vladimir Borisov) Перспективы рождаемости (Prospects of fertility). М. 1976;
Социология семьи. Под ред. А. И. Антонова. М.2005.

[5] This idea, offered by Vladimir Borisov, opposes the logic of the “transition”, which is used to describe the process of decaying of the millennial system of values and norms of high fertility.

The sociological-demographic theory of fertility decline reveals the causes of  historical dying out of large families (up to the childlessness), thereby stating the fact that in the present social system (which replaces the familistic social structure with its non-market economy) there us no regulators that could make people want to get married and have children.

On the contrary, in the scheme of the demographic transition, which describes the historical “transition” from traditional patriarchal (“outdated”) family the modern democratic (“progressive”) family, it is assumed that there is a latent “social mechanism” providing the inalterability or even “everlastingness” of the small-family pattern that ever expands the diversity of its forms and the freedom of choice of one of them.

[6] Борисов В. А. Ук. соч. СС.60—64.

[7] Eurostat. Данные от 22.12.2005. 

[8] Eurostat. «Premieres estimations demographiques pour 2002». Statistiques en bref. N25. 2002.

[9] Жиль Пизон. «Все страны мира (2003)». Население и общество. Инф. бюлл. ЦДЭЧ. 2003. №74.

[10] Население и общество. Инф. бюлл.Ц ДЭЧ. 2002. №68.

[11] Fertility and Family Surveys in countries of the ECE region. Austria. Italy. Spain. UN.1999. PP.75, 73, 77.

[12] Иванов С. Новое лицо брака в развитых странах. Население и общество. 2002. №63.

[13] A. Girard, L. Roussel. Ideal Family Size, Fertility and Population Police in western Europe. PaDR.1982. vol.8. Issue 2.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Fertility and Family Surveys in countries of the ECE region. Austria.1999.р.84.

[16] Greek fertility surveys: 1983, 1997, 1999. National Centre for Social Research 14—18 Messoghion Av.GR-11527. E-mail: hsymeonidou@ ekke.gr

[17] Борисов В. А.  Перспективы рождаемости. М.1976; Антонов А. И. Социология рождаемости. М.1980; Семья и дети. Под ред. А. И. Антонова. М.1982; Детность семьи: вчера, сегодня, завтра. Рук, авторского коллектива А. И. Антонов.М.1986; Жизнедеятельность семьи. Ред. А. И. Антонов. М.1990; А. И. Антонов. Микросоциология семьи.М.1998, Антонов А. И. Сорокин С. А. Судьба семьи в России 21 века. М.2000.

[18] Антонов А. И. (Anatoly Antonov)  Социология рождаемости. (Sociology of fertility) М.1980, Микросоциология семьи. (Microsociology of family) М.1998.

Дата публикации: 2011-11-28 15:02:10