In this paper, we investigate sociological aspects of the rapid increase in the public acceptance of voluntary childlessness in the Netherlands. In the 1960s, only 20% of the Dutch population accepted that a couple preferred to remain childless, and in the 1990s this proportion has increased to 90% (Survey CCN 1965–1996, own calculations). This strong change in the social norms about family planning has gone together with declining fertility rates. International comparisons show that the decline in fertility has had a comparatively strong momentum in the Netherlands: In 1960 the Dutch fertility rate was above the European average and in 1980 it was below the European average (Castles 2003).
Childlessness concerns both social scientists and policy makers, and quite some research has focussed on the individual determinants and consequences of childlessness (cf. Dykstra and Hagestad 2007; Keizer et al. 2007; Koropeckyj-Cox and Call 2007). Others have been more interested in more general causes and consequences of increasing childlessness. Van de Kaa (1987) and Lesthaeghe (1995) interpreted the decline in fertility rates as part of a broad process of social change, which they labelled as the Second Demographic Transition. Important elements of this process are the rise of cohabitation as an alternative to marriage, the increasing age at motherhood, and the increase of divorce. These behavioural issues have followed similar patterns, and, importantly, have gone hand in hand with changes in values on fertility and family planning.
One of the most important instigators of the Second Demographic Transition is seen in the changing division of labour between men and women as a result of increases in women’s educational attainment and in the growing permissiveness of the labour market participation of women, especially of mothers. The main argument is that rising levels of women’s human capital have increased the costs of having children. Simultaneously, there has been technological innovation with regard to birth control and family planning. Contraceptive methods have become widely available, and parenthood has become more a choice than an almost unavoidable event (Hakim 2003).
The shifts in fertility behaviour and fertility norms in the Netherlands are shown in Fig. 1.The statistics display a sharp decline in the number of births in the Netherlands. The birth rate dropped from about 90 children per 1,000 women aged 15–50 years in 1965 to 50 children per 1,000 women in the 1980s. In the same period, the Dutch population has become more permissive towards voluntary childlessness, as indicated by the dots. The strong decline in norms is the object of our study.Footnote 1
We address two research questions about the change in public support for voluntary childlessness in the Netherlands. First, we investigate whether the overall change has come about by cohort replacement or by intra-cohort changes (cf. Firebaugh 1997). Cohort replacement explains (part of) the overall change if younger birth cohorts are more permissive towards voluntary childlessness than older birth cohorts. The underlying assumption is that values are socialized during childhood and early adulthood and are relatively resistant to change over the life-course (Inglehart 1977). Intra-cohort change would explain (part of) the overall change when members of some or allbirth cohorts become more permissive over a given time-span. Changes in the values of a birth cohort can come about by two processes, by period effects and by life-course effects. Period effects are effects of contextual nature that affect all people, young and old, in similar ways, like economic or political conditions. Life-course effects are age-dependent and have to do with personal development as affected by experiencing life events such as marriage, divorce, and having children.
Using repeated cross-sectional data—which is the research design we are using—makes it possible to distinguish between cohort replacement and intra-cohort effects, for intra-cohort change shows up as period effects in a regression model in which birth cohort is controlled for (Firebaugh 1997). It is important to note that the fast increase in the percentage of the Dutch population approving voluntary childlessness logically cannot be the result of cohort replacement only, since the part of the population that has been ‘replaced’ in a period of 30 years is not large enough to account for the major changes that have taken place. However, it remains very interesting to decompose the general trend into cohort replacement and intra-cohort changes, and in this paper we set out to answer this question.
The second research question we address in this study is about the declining part of the population who is not supporting voluntary childlessness. Nowadays, about 90% of the Dutch population approves a couple’s decision to forgo parenthood. Who are the remaining 10% of the population who do not adhere to the modern value that the individual preference to remain childless should be respected? To answer this question, we explore differences in fertility values with respect to gender, family structure, educational attainment, income, and urbanization, and we pay special attention to differences between the religious and the non-religious parts of the population. Within the religious part of the population we will investigate differences between the three major denominations in the Netherlands (Roman Catholics, Dutch Reformed, and Re-reformed), and differences between churchgoers and those who do not visit church on a regular basis.
By answering these two questions, we hope to gain more insight in the rapid change in values towards voluntary childlessness. We think that doing research on this topic is important because of two reasons. First, there is the scholarly fascination to study an attitude that has changed so fast in such a short period. Second, the origins of social change for this value are important for society and policy because it is related to decreasing fertility. To what extent does the development towards less emphasis on pronatalist values come about by cohort replacement and to what extent by intra-cohort changes (period effects)? Before we address our research questions empirically, we first describe some major economic and cultural trends that occurred in the Netherlands since the 1950’s, followed by an outline of the research literature and the prevalent ideas on change in values about voluntary childlessness.
Economic and Cultural Modernization in the Netherlands
Between the 1950s and the 1970’s the Netherlands experienced a strong modernization process, of which we here highlight some important aspects. First, average income increased rapidly. The development of the Gross National Product per capita, expressed in 1999 Euros, shown in Fig. 2, displays this development. In 1950, GNP per capita was 4,470 euro and in 1996 it had increased to 17,950 euro per capita (Statistic Netherlands 2009; own calculationsFootnote 2). This represents an average growth in income of 3.1% per year, corrected for inflation.
Second, growing income is often seen as the driving force behind value change (Alwin and Scott 1996; Inglehart 1977; Ryder 1965). Inglehart’s theory of value change argues that growing prosperity and the fulfilment of basic material needs make that younger generations started to reject so-called materialist values and moved on to post-materialist values. Important elements of the new value pattern was a focus on personal autonomy, self-actualisation, and tolerant values. Large proportions of the population drifted away from traditional values in the 1960s and 1970s (de Graaf 1988; Inglehart 1977, 1990, 1997). An important part of the cultural modernization process was that sex roles have become less strong. Traditional values about how men and women should lead their lives have eroded, and women got the same rights as men to work on the labour market (van der Lippe 1993).
Third, the process of economic and cultural modernization has gone together with a fast secularization process. The moral guidance of religion in general and of churches and church leaders in particular has come under pressure, and the clash between modern values and the official, pro-family, doctrine of religious ideologies lead to secularization. Figure 2 shows that in 1950 18% was non-religious, and that this percentage has increase to 40% in 1996 (Becker and de Hart 2006). In the same period the proportion of churchgoers (at least monthly) has decreased to less than one fourth of the population.
Fourth, new contraceptive methods, such as oral contraceptives, became available. The invention of the hormonal birth control pill in the 1950s made that parenthood became much more a choice rather than a biological phenomenon (Hakim 2003). Oral contraceptives were introduced in the Netherlands in 1962 and were an immediate success (Rensman 2006). The percentage of women using the birth control pill has risen enormously. In 1962 about 3% of Dutch women in the relevant age category used the birth control pill. In the 1970s this percentage was about 38%, and 1996 it was 46% (Bronsema and Moors 1994; Rensman 2006). It is against this background of economic and cultural modernization that we analyse the rapid change in the acceptance of childlessness.