Gender Equity and Low Fertility in Postindustrial Societies

Very low fertility rates have come to characterize a broad range of postindustrial societies from Europe to East Asia, with some countries experiencing total fertility rates as low as 1.2. Such rates are far below population-replacement level and portend a range of future problems for the societies experiencing them. These problems include the possibility of a shortage of prime-age workers, slower economic growth, debates over the role of immigration as a solution, an increasing government burden to support the expanding ranks of the elderly, and heightened intergenerational tensions over resources.

Demographers have responded to the concern over what has been termed “lowest-low fertility” by producing a large body of empirical research based largely on the analysis of high-quality individual-level survey data across a range of countries. Research has been heavily focused on Europe, with much less attention devoted to East Asia. As one of a handful of countries (together with the Northern European welfare states) that has maintained a moderate fertility rate, the U.S. has also played a minor role in the comparative fertility literature to date. This project addresses both of these omissions.

The project utilizes a methodological approach that integrates quantitative and qualitative research methods in order to capitalize on the relative strengths of each. Quantitative methods are used to generate the patterned distribution of family- and gender-role attitudes in OECD countries and to model how these distributions combine with country-level institutional and economic contexts to influence total fertility rates. Qualitative methods are central to the project goal of generating a richer understanding of how young adults in different cultural contexts subjectively experience family- and gender-role norms, economic constraints, labor market institutions, and state policies. The project team has conducted structured in-depth interviews with over 80 young highly-educated men and women residing in two urban areas in each of five countries: Spain, Japan, and South Korea (low-fertility countries) and Sweden and the U.S. (moderate-fertility countries).

The key innovations of this mixed-methods research project will inform further studies of low fertility in two ways: 1) by showing how the theoretical and empirical inclusion of men’s response to normative contexts (such as “male breadwinner” ideology) influences delayed marriage and childbearing, and 2) by demonstrating how the careful linkage of quantitative methods with qualitative research design and analysis can generate richer knowledge of how individuals subjectively experience the normative, economic, and institutional contexts of their society.  This knowledge is critical for the formation of public policy responses to address lowest-low fertility.