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An Economic Analysis of the Gap Between Desired and Actual Fertility: The Case of Spain


Family size is the outcome of sequential decisions influenced both by preferences and by ongoing changes in the environment where a family lives. During the last two decades, the gap between the number of children women prefer and their actual fertility has widened in Spain. The paper uses the 1985 and 1999 Spanish Fertility Surveys to study whether the tightening of the labor market and worsening of economic conditions in Spain during the last 20 years are important determinants of this change. I find that women facing high unemployment rates in their mid-twenties tend to restrict their fertility below their ideal level. Among women in the labor force, the stability of a public sector job lessens the difficulties of balancing employment and family and of achieving preferred fertility. Temporary contracts work in the opposite direction. Findings are robust to the inclusion of controls for within-couple discrepancies in either preferences or religious affiliation.

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Fig 1


  1. Although individual childbearing preferences are known to be reasonable predictors of future births (Freedman, Freedman, & Thornton, 1980; Thomson et al., 1990; Thomson, 1997), they do not fully explain the observed level of fertility (Ryder, 1973; Westoff & Ryder, 1977).

  2. Previous research supports the accuracy of wife’s reports of husband’s fertility preferences (Morgan, 1985, Williams & Thomson, 1985, Goldscheider & Kaufman, 1996).

  3. There are very few transitions from non-work to work among Spanish women during this period. Most labor market transitions occur from work into inactivity (Adam, 1996). Thus this measure may underestimate the number of women who have been in the labor force at some point. Those who have left may have either failed to find a way to combine family and work and have given up struggling to obtain this balance or have weaker preferences for a career as compared to those who decide to stay in the labor market.

  4. Cohort specific results are available from the author.

  5. When I estimate the model for women born between 1957 and 1962, the coefficient for the husband’s temporary contract is positive and highly significant.

  6. Freedman et al. (1980) find that women’s preferences tend to adjust to reduce inter-couple difference but that final parity is more likely to adjust downward than upward to meet spouse’s ideal. Interestingly, Thomson and Hoem (1998) found that Swedish couples with preference differences had lower childbearing, but both the woman and her spouse were equally likely to prevail in the face of a disagreement.

  7. Even if family size has been shown to vary across religious denominations and to be relatively larger among those with more frequent church attendance (Adsera, 2006; Lehrer, 1996; Mosher & Hendershot, 1984; Williams & Zimmer, 1990), its variation across religious groups should be explained by differences in preferences once other relevant factors are accounted for. As a matter of fact, researchers do not find any systematic discrepancy between the desired number of children and final parity across religions in the United States (Freedman et al., 1980).

  8. Even if the Catholic Church teachings impose a restrictive use of contraception, religious practice among Spanish Catholics has sharply decreased since the onset of democracy in 1975 (Branas-Garza & Neuman, 2004) and adherence to Church recommendations among Catholics worldwide has weakened (Goldscheider & Mosher, 1991). In Table 2, less than 2% among those with a gap between actual and desired family size in the 1999 SFS report lack of familiarity with the use of contraceptives. Widespread availability and use of family planning seems to have contributed to the widening of the gap between desires and achieved fertility in the European Union (Fahey & Speder, 2004).


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Correspondence to Alicia Adsera.

Additional information

This paper was made possible by Grant Numbers P30-HD18288 and T32-HD007302 from the NICHD. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. I would like to thank Evelyn Lehrer, Robert Kaestner and two anonymous referees for their comments.


Appendix A

Appendix A Means of control variables, 1985 and 1999 Spanish Fertility Surveys

Appendix B

Appendix B Number of born children (and current pregnancies) among married women in the 1985 and 1999 Spanish Fertility Surveys




Age at marriage

−0.062 (11.12)**

−0.039 (9.18)**

Aggregate conditions

Unemployment rate when wife 24 years

−0.030 (7.73)**

−0.013 (5.61)**

Wife’s employment

In Labor Force after marriage

−0.068 (1.58)#


Years employed

−0.015 (3.22)**


Wife’s current employment

In Labor Force


−0.152 (4.96)**

Temporary contract


−0.062 (1.37)

Public sector job


0.107 (2.38)**

Husband’s current employment

In Labor Force


−0.002 (0.04)

Temporary contract


−0.027 (0.70)

Public sector job


−0.033 (0.94)

Different religion within couple


−0.070 (1.93)*


4.520 (25.39)**

3.590 (22.30)**

Number of observations






  1. Note: OLS estimates include controls for wife’s religious affiliation, out of wedlock children, years of marriage, size of city and region of residence as well as the couple’s education
  2. Significance levels: * less than 10%; ** less than 5%; # less than 15%

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Adsera, A. An Economic Analysis of the Gap Between Desired and Actual Fertility: The Case of Spain. Rev Econ Household 4, 75–95 (2006).

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