Preference Theory and Low Fertility: A Comparative Perspective

  • Agnese VitaliEmail author
  • Francesco C. Billari
  • Alexia Prskawetz
  • Maria Rita Testa


The discussion on the causes of the most recent fertility decline in Europe, and in particular on the emergence of lowest-low fertility, emphasizes the relevance of cultural factors in addition to economic ones. As part of such a cultural framework, the heterogeneity of preferences concerning the “career vs. family” dichotomy has been systematized in the “Preference Theory” approach developed by Catherine Hakim. This heterogeneity in preferences, however, has so far been underinvestigated in a comparative framework. This paper makes use of comparative data from the 2004/2005 Round of the European Social Survey to test the links between individual-level preferences and both fertility outcomes and fertility intentions, in a variety of societal settings. Results confirm an association between work–family lifestyle preferences and realized fertility in a variety of European countries, while they do not show a relationship between lifestyle preferences and fertility intentions. Results further support the existence of heterogeneous patterns of association between lifestyle preferences and fertility choices among welfare regimes.


Preference Theory Low and lowest-low fertility Europe European Social Survey Welfare regime 


Le débat portant sur les causes de la baisse la plus récente de la fécondité en Europe, et en particulier sur l’émergence des fécondités les plus basses met l’accent sur le rôle des facteurs culturels, par-delà les facteurs économiques. Dans le cadre de ces facteurs culturels, l’hétérogénéité des préférences en matière de dilemme «carrière ou famille» a été formalisé par Catherine Hakim sous la forme de la «théorie des préférences». Cette hétérogénéité des préférences a toutefois été peu explorée dans une perspective comparative. Cet article exploite les données comparatives de la vague 2004/2005 de l’Enquête Sociale Européenne pour tester les liens entre les préférences individuelles, d’une part, et la fécondité réelle et souhaitée, d’autre part, dans des contextes sociaux très divers. Les résultats confirment une association entre les préférences en matière de mode de vie par rapport au travail et à la famille et la fécondité réelle dans toute une série de pays européens, mais ne mettent pas en évidence de lien entre les préférences en matière de mode de vie et la fécondité souhaitée. De plus, les résultats confirment l’existence de schémas hétérogènes d’association entre les préférences en matière de modes de vie et les choix de fécondité dans les différents régimes d’Etat-providence.


Théorie des préférences Fécondités les plus basses Europe Enquête Sociale Européenne Régime d’Etat-providence 



This research has been funded by the European Commission (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities) under the Project “Fertility intentions and outcomes: The role of policies to close the gap” (VS/2006/0685). The main parts of the paper were written while the first author visited the Vienna Institute of Demography. We are grateful to Laurent Toulemon for comments and suggestions, as well to the participants of the 2007 Annual Conference of the Population Association of America (New York) and to the “Demosoc” seminar at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona for useful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Agnese Vitali
    • 1
    Email author
  • Francesco C. Billari
    • 2
  • Alexia Prskawetz
    • 3
    • 4
  • Maria Rita Testa
    • 3
  1. 1.Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social DynamicsUniversità BocconiMilanItaly
  2. 2.Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics, IMQ and IGIERUniversità BocconiMilanItaly
  3. 3.Vienna Institute of DemographyAustrian Academy of SciencesViennaAustria
  4. 4.Institute of Mathematical Methods in Economics, Research Unit EconomicsVienna University of TechnologyViennaAustria

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