Economic precariousness is a multidimensional concept, generally referring to a state of threatening insecurity or risk (Kalleberg, 2009; Olsthoorn, 2014; Vosko et al., 2009).Footnote 1 In this study, we focus on objective indicators of precariousness. Following Olsthoorn (2014), we distinguish between precariousness relating to income on the one hand and precariousness relating to the employment situation on the other. Income precariousness pertains to the ability to secure a sufficient income, and is usually measured by a low total income derived from wages as well as other sources (Olsthoorn, 2014). Employment precariousness refers to an employment situation that is uncertain, unpredictable, and risky (Kalleberg, 2009). Joblessness perhaps constitutes the most obvious form of employment precariousness; in addition, workers in insecure employment relations such as temporary employment can be characterized as precarious (Kalleberg, 2009; Standing, 2011). Most previous research on fertility outcomes has focused on either income precariousness or employment precariousness. In the few studies that did include both types of precariousness, one of them was usually considered a control variable (Hart, 2015; Yu & Sun, 2018). Moreover, the majority of studies has focused on current precariousness. However, past precariousness may also have a considerable impact on childbearing decisions. Therefore, we place equal emphasis on both current and past precariousness in terms of income as well as employment. In what follows, we first discuss how current precariousness may influence the transition to parenthood and then consider how past precariousness could have an additional effect. We assess the impact of income and employment precariousness simultaneously. We then move on to discuss how different combinations of current and past precariousness may affect first birth rates. Finally, we comment on possible gender differences in the relationship between precariousness and fertility.
Most recent studies expect that the experience of current economic precariousness makes both men and women postpone the transition to parenthood (e.g. Barbieri et al., 2015; Hart, 2015; Laß, 2020; Miettinen & Jalovaara, 2019; Wood & Neels, 2017). Three mechanisms have been argued to explain this relationship. First, precariousness increases financial strain and resource constraints (Brauner-Otto & Geist, 2018). As the experience of precariousness implies a lack of economic resources that are (perceived to be) necessary to raise a child, potential parents with limited resources may view children as too costly and therefore decide to postpone childbearing or to not have children at all (Auer & Danzer, 2015; Hart, 2015; Özcan et al., 2010). Second, precariousness has been argued to decrease fertility because it increases perceptions of economic uncertainty (Brauner-Otto & Geist, 2018). Precariousness will make people more uncertain about their ability to provide for their family in the future as well as about their future career path. This uncertainty may discourage them from making long-term binding commitments by becoming parents (Blossfeld et al., 2005; Chan & Tweedie, 2015). Moreover, strategic timing decisions may play a role, as having a child while being precariously employed may decrease the probability of finding stable employment in the future (Adsera, 2011; Laß, 2020). Third, the experience of economic precariousness increases stress and has detrimental effects on life satisfaction (Clark et al., 2001; Knabe & Rätzel, 2011), which may in turn inhibit childbearing. These three mechanisms all predict a direct effect of precariousness on fertility. At the same time, a lack of resources, increased uncertainty, and increased stress may also make individuals less attractive as a partner and may increase relationship conflict (Ishizuka, 2018; Smock et al., 2005). As a result, precariousness may also have an indirect effect on childbearing by decreasing union formation and union stability (Hart, 2015; Laß, 2020). Taken together, this leads us to hypothesize that (H1) current income and employment precariousness decrease first birth rates.
The results of recent studies largely support the hypothesis that current precariousness decreases first birth rates, although the evidence differs partially by gender, country, and the type of economic precariousness that is studied. Most prior research found lower first birth rates among men with lower incomes (Schmitt, 2012 in Germany but not the UK; Vignoli et al., 2012; Hart, 2015; Yu & Sun, 2018; Miettinen & Jalovaara, 2019; Van Wijk et al., 2021) and among men who are not employed (Lundström & Andersson, 2012; Pailhé & Solaz, 2012; Barbieri et al., 2015; Wood & Neels, 2017; Dupray & Pailhé, 2018; Miettinen & Jalovaara, 2019; but see Özcan et al., 2010; Schmitt, 2012; Begall, 2013; Raymo & Shibata, 2017; Yu & Sun, 2018; Laß, 2020). The evidence is more mixed for men’s temporary employment: several studies found that temporarily employed men postponed first births (Dupray & Pailhé, 2018; Lundström & Andersson, 2012; Pailhé & Solaz, 2012; Sutela, 2012; Vignoli et al., 2012), but most studies found no effect of men’s temporary employment (Auer & Danzer, 2015; Barbieri et al., 2015; Laß, 2020; Raymo & Shibata, 2017; Schmitt, 2012, 2021; Van Wijk et al., 2021; Vignoli et al., 2019). Turning to the evidence for women, the majority of past findings support the view that women with low incomes (Hart, 2015; Yu & Sun, 2018; Miettinen & Jalovaara, 2019; Van Wijk et al., 2021; but see Schmitt, 2012; Vignoli et al., 2012) and women in temporary employment (Lundström & Andersson, 2012; Pailhé & Solaz, 2012; Schmitt, 2012 in Germany but not the UK; Vignoli et al., 2012; Auer & Danzer, 2015; Barbieri et al., 2015; Dupray & Pailhé, 2018; Vignoli et al., 2019; Laß, 2020; Schmitt, 2021; Van Wijk et al., 2021; but see Raymo & Shibata, 2017) delay the transition to parenthood. The evidence for a delaying effect on first births of female joblessness is more mixed and seems to depend on the country that is studied, with negative associations being reported in Belgium (Wood & Neels, 2017), Sweden (Lundström & Andersson, 2012), and Finland (Miettinen & Jalovaara, 2019), but not in the Netherlands (Begall, 2013), Germany (Kreyenfeld, 2010; Özcan et al., 2010; Schmitt, 2012), the UK (Schmitt, 2012), Italy (Barbieri et al., 2015; Vignoli et al., 2012), and the US (Yu & Sun, 2018). In fact, in some countries jobless women are more likely to become mothers than employed women, which might be explained by the high opportunity costs of childbearing for employed women in societies where female employment and childrearing are (viewed as being) incompatible (Becker, 1981; Kreyenfeld, 2010).
Most previous studies on the relationship between economic precariousness and fertility have focused on the current experience of precariousness, based on the assumption that the current experience will figure prominently in evaluations of the suitability of one’s economic position for raising a child and will have a direct impact on expectations about the future. This has been criticized by some recent studies, however, which argue that a focus on the current economic position provides an incomplete picture of the influence of precariousness on fertility behaviour (Busetta et al., 2019; Ciganda, 2015). These authors have argued that the decision to have a child is based on long-term evaluations of one’s economic situation, which are influenced more by the persistence of precariousness than by ‘snapshot indicators’ of the current situation (Busetta et al., 2019; Ciganda, 2015). This aligns well with the central proposition of life course studies that an individual’s prior life course influences later life outcomes (Huinink & Kohli, 2014; Mayer, 2009). Theoretically, it may be expected that the experience of past precariousness influences the transition to parenthood through similar mechanisms as current precariousness. First, past precariousness drains economic resources and may not have allowed people to build up a sound financial basis that can be used to invest in children (Kravdal, 2002). Second, the experience of past precariousness likely increases feelings of uncertainty and will decrease one’s confidence in having a stable and successful career in the future (Knabe & Rätzel, 2011). Those who experience long-term precariousness accumulate less human capital and face the threat of long-term future precariousness when having children (Adsera, 2004). Third, past precariousness has a negative, ‘scarring’ effect on life satisfaction even after taking into account the effect of the current position (Clark et al., 2001; Knabe & Rätzel, 2011), and lower life satisfaction in turn may inhibit childbearing. We therefore expect that (H2) past income and employment precariousness decrease first birth rates over and above the effect of current precariousness. Again, this may be a result of a direct effect of past precariousness on childbearing decisions as well as an indirect effect that runs through lower levels of union formation and union stability.
The empirical evidence that links past precariousness to the transition to parenthood is scarcer than that relating to current precariousness, and no studies were found that distinguished current and past income precariousness. Several studies have reported that past unemployment reduces first birth rates for men (Ciganda, 2015; Dupray & Pailhé, 2018; Pailhé & Solaz, 2012; Schmitt, 2021), whereas only one study found no such effect (Özcan et al., 2010). A similar negative effect was found for men’s past short-term employment in one study (Pailhé & Solaz, 2012), but men’s past temporary employment had no effect in another (Dupray & Pailhé, 2018). For women, past temporary or short-term employment reduced first birth rates in all studies that considered this indicator (Barbieri et al., 2015; Dupray & Pailhé, 2018; Pailhé & Solaz, 2012), whereas women’s past unemployment had no effect in some studies (Ciganda, 2015; Özcan et al., 2010; Pailhé & Solaz, 2012) but decreased first birth rates in others (Dupray & Pailhé, 2018; Schmitt, 2021).
As economic precariousness tends to cluster in time, some individuals will experience precariousness both in the past and in the present (Mattijssen & Pavlopoulos, 2019; Pohlig, 2019). On the one hand, we may expect that such long-term or persistent precariousness will have a particularly strong negative effect on first birth rates, as each additional experience of precariousness further decreases economic resources, increases perceptions of uncertainty about the future, and increases stress, which in turn causes a postponement of childbearing. As a result, we may expect that (H3a) first birth rates are lowest among persons who experience persistent precariousness. On the other hand, individuals who face persistent precariousness may realize that they are unlikely to ever fulfil the normative requirement of parenthood in the form of a stable job and income, and therefore disconnect their childbearing desires from economic conditions (Augustine et al., 2009). Moreover, those in a persistently precarious economic position may use parenthood as a way to provide meaning to their life (Edin & Kefalas, 2005) and to gain a source of security and social identity (Friedman et al., 1994) that they are unable to get from their employment career. In addition, as social benefits in the Netherlands increase when children are present in the household, having children may be a way for those in persistent precariousness to increase their income. As a consequence, first birth rates may increase when economic precariousness is persistent (Kravdal, 2002; Pailhé & Solaz, 2012). In contrast, when precariousness is experienced only in the past or only in the present, a re-evaluation of the requirements of parenthood becomes less likely as a stable employment career remains a feasible possibility, and childbearing may thus be postponed until the situation has improved. Therefore, a contrasting hypothesis to H3a is that (H3b) first birth rates are higher among persons who experience persistent precariousness than among persons who experienced precariousness only in the past or only in the current situation.
In addition, specific shifts in precariousness over time may matter for the decision to have a first child. On the one hand, persons who have recently made a transition out of precariousness, i.e. a transition from a precarious to a non-precarious state, may view their current situation as more favourable than persons who have continuously been in an advantageous position, and transitions out of precariousness may as such lead to heightened first birth rates. This may partly be a result of a ‘recuperation effect’ among individuals who postponed childbearing when they were in a precarious position in the past. We might thus expect that (H4a) first birth rates are higher among persons who recently made a transition out of precariousness than among persons who did not experience precariousness at all. Some evidence for the relevance of such transitions out of precariousness is provided by Barbieri et al. (2015), who found significantly higher first birth rates among Italian women who recently transitioned from an unstable to a permanent employment position. In contrast, Schmitt’s (2012) finding of a lower probability of having a first child among German and UK women who recently saw an increase in income and Begall’s (2013) finding of a lower first birth rate among women who recently made an upward career move contradict this expectation. On the other hand, it could be argued that a recent transition into precariousness, i.e. a transition from a non-precarious to a precarious situation, may increase first birth rates, as the advantageous situation in the past will have provided the necessary resources for having a child whereas the current precarious situation will decrease the opportunity costs of having children. Moreover, the stable situation in the past will make it more likely that the current state of precariousness is only temporary and may make one’s prospects of the future more positive. Finally, a selection effect may be at play here, as individuals who are planning to have a child may look for a more precarious situation that may be easier to combine with having children (Begall, 2013). A contrasting hypothesis to H4a is therefore that (H4b) first birth rates are higher among persons who recently made a transition into precariousness than among persons who did not experience precariousness at all. Schmitt’s (2012) finding that recent income losses increase first birth rates among German women supports this assumption, whereas he found the opposite effect for German men and no effects for men and women in the UK.
Our general expectation that economic precariousness inhibits childbearing among men and women alike is in line with recent studies (Brauner-Otto & Geist, 2018; Hart, 2015; Miettinen & Jalovaara, 2019). However, there are several reasons why this effect may be more ambiguous for women than for men. First, women in the Netherlands are still much more likely than men to decrease their working hours after becoming parents or to exit the labour market altogether (Statistics Netherlands & SCP 2018), and as a result opportunity costs will likely play a more prominent role in the childbearing decisions of women than they do for men. Second, societal norms may make parenthood an acceptable alternative to labour market participation for women but not for men, and may therefore make motherhood an attractive option (also) when faced with economic precariousness (Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Friedman et al., 1994). Therefore, the expectations that persistent precariousness and transitions into precariousness increase first birth rates might be more relevant for women than they are for men. On the other hand, strategic planning considerations may also be more relevant for women than for men, as women are more likely to temporarily leave the labour market when having a child and therefore may be more inclined to secure stable employment that allows them to return to work after childbearing (Laß, 2020). To take into account these gender differences, we analyse the impact of economic precariousness on the transition to parenthood separately for men and for women.