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Fertility decline in the modern world and in the original demographic transition: Testing three theories with cross-national data

Abstract

This study uses aggregate data on a large number of the world's societies to test three theories of fertility decline in the modern world and in the original demographic transition. One prominent theory relates fertility decline to the changing economic value of children. With industrialization and overall modernization the economic value of children's labor shifts from positive to negative. This interpretation has been challenged by those who claim that the flow of wealth in preindustrial societies is always from parent to child rather than from child to parent. An alternative interpretation is that fertility levels reflect people's efforts to promote their reproductive success, and that this requires the careful tracking of infant and child mortality. Fertility rates are adjusted to the rate of infant and child survival, and will be high when survival rates are low and low when survival rates are high. A third theory emphasizes female empowerment. Fertility will be high when women are highly subordinated to men, but as women gain more autonomy and control over their own lives they reduce their fertility levels because, among other possibilities, higher levels of fertility present them with serious burdens. We tested all three theories through multiple regression analyses performed on two samples of societies, the first a large sample of the world's nation-states during the period between 1960 and 1990, and the second a sample of now-developed societies between 1880 and 1940. Our findings showed that infant mortality was an excellent predictor of fertility, and that female empowerment was a good predictor. However, there was only weak support for the argument that the economic value of children's labor plays an important role in fertility decisions. The findings were discussed in the context of a broader interpretation of fertility behavior in societies with high levels of industrialization and modernization.

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Correspondence to Stephen K. Sanderson.

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Sanderson, S.K., Dubrow, J. Fertility decline in the modern world and in the original demographic transition: Testing three theories with cross-national data. Popul Environ 21, 511–537 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02436770

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Keywords

  • Labor Force
  • Infant Mortality
  • Child Mortality
  • National Product
  • Demographic Transition