Fertility and Life Satisfaction in Rural Ethiopia


Despite recent strong interest in the link between fertility and subjective well-being, the focus has centered on developed countries. For poorer countries, in contrast, the relationship remains rather elusive. Using a well-established panel survey—the Ethiopian Rural Household Survey (ERHS)—we investigate the empirical relationship between fertility and life satisfaction in rural Ethiopia, the largest landlocked country in Africa. Consistent with the fertility theories for developing countries and with the sociodemographic characteristics of rural Ethiopia, we hypothesize that this relationship varies by gender and across life stages, being more positive for men and for parents in old age. Indeed, our results suggest that older men benefit the most in terms of life satisfaction from having a large number of children, while the recent birth of a child is detrimental for the subjective well-being of women at reproductive ages. We address endogeneity issues by using lagged life satisfaction in ordinary least squares regressions, through fixed-effects estimation and the use of instrumental variables.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.


  2. 2.

    According to the original framework, parents have children in order to satisfy nine values or needs: affection and primary group ties, stimulation and fun, expansion of the self, acquisition of adult status and social identity, achievement and creativity, morality, economic utility, power and influence, and social comparison.

  3. 3.

    Women were offered free access to contraceptives and assistance from a family planning nurse through a voucher, either received in private or in the presence of the husband. In the former case, women were much more likely to ask for (concealable) contraception and much less likely to report undesired births afterward. Because rural Ethiopian men are more pronatalist than women (Short and Kiros 2002), Ethiopia is likely to share with other African countries (such as Zambia) the same asymmetries in the intracouple bargaining regarding fertility.

  4. 4.

    Considering the difficulties in collecting data in a rural area of a developing country, panel attrition in our data does not seem remarkable. We nevertheless account for potential attrition bias by weighing all estimates by the inverse of the estimated probability of attrition (inverse probability weighting (IPW)). Results are robust to this check; see Online Resource 1 for further details. Consider also that the use of the IV mitigates the effects of attrition bias in linear regression models.

  5. 5.

    We repeat the IPW analysis (see footnote 3) to account for a potential source of bias due to selection on the age cut-off. Results are robust to this check; see Online Resource 1 for further details. Consider, however, that the potential measurement error is addressed also through the IV approach.

  6. 6.

    The question is very similar to the Cantril Ladder (Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, Cantril 1965). The literature uses both the terms “life evaluation” and “life satisfaction” to refer to the Cantril Ladder (e.g., Cummins 1995; Deaton and Stone 2014).

  7. 7.

    Results do not change if we consider women aged 50–60 or 55–60. Results are available upon request.

  8. 8.

    These results are obtained through a fixed-effects regression of our economic variables on the number of children ever born plus additional controls (coresident partner, schooling, physical limitations, and shocks), separately for young men and women and with standard errors clustered at the village level. Results are available upon request.

  9. 9.

    We also explored the effect of children’s gender. None of our findings change significantly when accounting for the differential role of the children’s gender on parents’ subjective well-being. We ran this robustness check by (1) replacing the number of children variable in the regressions in columns 5–6 of Tables 2 and 3 with two different variables capturing the number of daughters and the number of sons; and (2) replacing the dummy variable for a newly born child in columns 1–4 of Tables 2 and 3 with two dummy variables separately accounting for whether the respondents had a male or a female child in the last five years (the omitted category being no newborns). Regression results are available from the authors upon request. This result provides further support to the exclusion restriction when we implement the IV approach.

  10. 10.

    Potential weak-instrument problems are addressed in Online Resource 1.


  1. Aassve, A., Engelhardt, H., Francavilla, F., Kedir, A. M., Kim, J., Mealli, F., . . . Prskawetz, A. (2006). Poverty and fertility dynamics: A comparative analysis. Population Review, 45(2), 1–23.

  2. Aassve, A., Goisis, A., & Sironi, M. (2012). Happiness and childbearing across Europe. Social Indicators Research, 108, 65–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Aassve, A., Mencarini, L., & Sironi, M. (2015). Institutional change, happiness and fertility. European Sociological Review, 31, 749–765.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Alemu, K. S. (2015). Pension fund management: The case of Ethiopian Social Security Agency. Journal of Business & Financial Affairs, 4, 148. doi:10.4172/2167-0234.1000148

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Alvergne, A., Lawson, D. W., Clarke, P. M. R., Gurmu, E., & Mace, R. (2013). Fertility, parental investment, and the early adoption of modern contraception in rural Ethiopia. American Journal of Human Biology, 25, 107–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Ambaye, D. W. (2015). Land rights in Ethiopia. In D. W. Ambaye (Ed.), Land rights and expropriation in Ethiopia (pp. 27–92). New York, NY: Springer.

  7. Ashraf, N., Field, E., & Lee, J. (2014). Household bargaining and excess fertility: An experimental study in Zambia. American Economic Review, 104, 2210–2237.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bailey, C., & Turner, J. (2002). Social security in Africa. Journal of Aging & Social Policy, 14(1), 105–114.

  9. Becker, G. S. (1960). An economic analysis of fertility. In G. B. Roberts (Ed.), Demographic and economic change in developed countries (pp. 209–231). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  10. Becker, G. S. (1991). A treatise on the family (Enlarged ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  11. Beekle, A. T., & McCabe, C. (2006). Awareness and determinants of family planning practice in Jimma, Ethiopia. International Nursing Review, 53, 269–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bhargava, A. (2007). Desired family size, family planning and fertility in Ethiopia. Journal of Biosocial Science, 39, 367–381.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Birdsall, N. M., & Griffin, C. C. (1988). Fertility and poverty in developing countries. Journal of Policy Modeling, 10, 29–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Bongaarts, J., & Bruce, J. (1995). The causes of unmet need for contraception and the social content of services. Studies in Family Planning, 26, 57–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Bongaarts, J., & Potter, R. G. (1983). Fertility, biology and behavior: An analysis of the proximate determinants. New York, NY: Academic Press.

  16. Bulatao, R. A. (1981). Values and disvalues of children in successive childbearing decisions. Demography, 18, 1–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Caldwell, J. C. (1978). A theory of fertility: From high plateau to destabilization. Population and Development Review, 4, 553–577.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Caldwell, J. C. (1982). Theory of fertility decline. London, UK: Academic Press.

  19. Caldwell, J. C. (1986). Routes to low mortality in poor countries. Population and Development Review, 12, 171–220.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concerns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

  21. Cetre, S., Clark, A. E., & Senik, C. (2016). Happy people have children: Choice and self-selection into parenthood. European Journal of Population, 32, 445–473.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Cruces, G., & Galiani, S. (2007). Fertility and female labor supply in Latin America: New causal evidence. Labour Economics, 14, 565–573.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. CSA, & ICF. (2012). Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey 2011. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Central Statistical Agency; Calverton, MD: ICF International. Retrieved from http://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR255/FR255.pdf

  24. CSA, & ORC Macro. (2006). Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey 2005. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Central Statistical Agency; Calverton, MD: ORC Macro. Retrieved from http://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR179/FR179[23June2011].pdf

  25. Cummins, R. A. (1995). On the trail of the gold standard for subjective well-being. Social Indicators Research, 35, 179–200.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Deaton, A., & Paxson, C. (1998). Economies of scale, household size, and the demand for food. Journal of Political Economy, 106, 897–930.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Deaton, A., & Stone, A. (2014). Evaluative and hedonic wellbeing among those with and without children at home. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 1328–1333.

  28. Dercon, S. (2004). Growth and shocks: Evidence from rural Ethiopia. Journal of Development Economics, 74, 309–329.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Dercon, S., & Krishnan, P. (2000a). In sickness and in health: Risk sharing within households in rural Ethiopia. Journal of Political Economy, 108, 688–727.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Dercon, S., & Krishnan, P. (2000b). Vulnerability, seasonality and poverty in Ethiopia. Journal of Development Studies, 36(6), 25–53.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Di Tella, R., MacCulloch, R. J., & Oswald, A. J. (2003). The macroeconomics of happiness. Review of Economics and Statistics, 85, 809–827.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Fawcett, J. T. (1983). Perceptions of the value of children: Satisfactions and costs. In R. A. Bulatao & R. D. Lee (Eds.), Determinants of fertility in developing countries: Supply and demand for children (Vol. 1, pp. 429–457). New York, NY: Academic Press.

  33. Ferrer-i-Carbonell, A., & Frijters, P. (2004). How important is methodology for the estimates of the determinants of happiness. Economic Journal, 114, 641–659.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Fitaw, Y., Berhane, Y., & Worku, A. (2004). Impact of child mortality and fertility preferences on fertility status in rural Ethiopia. East African Medical Journal, 81, 300–306.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Gan, L., & Vernon, V. (2003). Testing the Barten model of economies of scale in household consumption: Toward resolving a paradox of Deaton and Paxson. Journal of Political Economy, 111, 1361–1377.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Gibson, M. A., & Mace, R. (2007). Polygyny, reproductive success and child health in rural Ethiopia: Why marry a married man? Journal of Biosocial Science, 39, 287–300.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Günther, I., & Harttgen, K. (2016). Desired fertility and number of children born across time and space. Demography, 53, 55–83.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Hansen, T. (2012). Parenthood and happiness: A review of folk theories versus empirical evidence. Social Indicators Research, 108, 26–64.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Harris, I. D., Fronczak, C., Roth, L., & Meacham, R. B. (2011). Fertility and the aging male. Reviews in Urology, 13, e184–e190. doi:10.3909/riu0538

    Google Scholar 

  40. Hoddinott, J., & Yisehac, J. (2011). Ethiopian Rural Household Surveys (ERHS) 1989–2009 [Harvard Dataverse, V7]. Retrieved from hdl:1902.1/15646

  41. Hoffman, L. W., & Hoffman, M. L. (1973). The value of children to parents. In J. T. Fawcett (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on population (pp. 19–76). New York, NY: Basic Books.

  42. Hoffman, L. W., Thornton, A., & Manis, J. D. (1978). The value of children to parents in the United States. Journal of Population, 1, 91–131.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Hogan, D. P., Berhanu, B., & Hailemariam, A. (1999). Household organization, women’s autonomy, and contraceptive behavior in Southern Ethiopia. Studies in Family Planning, 30, 302–314.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. International Social Security Association (ISSA). (2013). Social security programs throughout the world: Africa, 2013 (SSA Publication No. 13-11803). Washington, DC: Social Security Administration.

  45. Kim, J., & Hicks, J. A. (2015). Happiness begets children? Evidence for a bi-directional link between well-being and number of children. Journal of Positive Psychology, 11, 62–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Kiros, G.-E., & Kertzer, D. I. (2000). The impact of postmarital residence of fertility, early childhood mortality, and child health in Southern Ethiopia. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 31, 503–518.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Kohler, H. P., Behrman, J. R., & Skytthe, A. (2005). Partner + children = happiness? The effects of partnerships and fertility on well-being. Population and Development Review, 31, 407–445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Lanjouw, P., & Ravallion, M. (1995). Poverty and household size. Economic Journal, 105, 1415–1434.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Lavers, T. (2008). Reconciling the needs and wants of respondents in two rural Ethiopian communities. Social Indicators Research, 86, 129–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Lee, J. (2008). Sibling size and investment in children’s education: An Asian instrument. Journal of Population Economics, 21, 855–875.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Mabsout, R., & Van Staveren, I. (2010). Disentangling bargaining power from individual and household level to institutions: Evidence on women’s position in Ethiopia. World Development, 38, 783–796.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Margolis, R., & Myrskylä, M. (2011). A global perspective on happiness and fertility. Population and Development Review, 37, 29–56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Mekonnen, Y., & Mekonnen, A. (2003). Factors influencing the use of maternal healthcare services in Ethiopia. Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition, 21, 374–382.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Mesfin, G. (2002). The role of men in fertility and family planning program in Tigray region. Ethiopian Journal of Health Development, 16, 247–255.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Myrskylä, M., & Margolis, R. (2014). Happiness: Before and after the kids. Demography, 51, 1843–1866.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Nauck, B. (2005). Changing value of children: An action theory of fertility behavior and intergenerational relationships in cross-cultural comparison. In W. Friedlmeier, P. Chakkarath, & B. Schwarz (Eds.), Culture and human development: The importance of cross cultural research for the social sciences (pp. 183–202). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

  57. Nauck, B. (2007). Value of children and the framing of fertility: Results from a cross-cultural comparative survey in 10 societies. European Sociological Review, 23, 615–629.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Nomaguchi, K. M., & Milkie, M. A. (2003). Costs and rewards of children: The effects of becoming a parent on adults’ lives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 356–374.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Office of the Prime Minister [Ethiopia]. (1993). National population policy of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Office of the Prime Minister.

  60. Overbye, E. (2005). Extending social security in developing countries: A review of three main strategies. International Journal of Social Welfare, 14, 305–314.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Pankhurst, H. (1992). Gender, development and identity: An Ethiopian study. London, UK: Zed Books.

  62. Peiró, A. (2006). Happiness, satisfaction, and socio-economic conditions: Some international evidence. Journal of Socio-Economics, 35, 348–365.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Plagnol, A. C., & Huppert, F. A. (2010). Happy to help? Exploring the factors associated with variations in rates of volunteering across Europe. Social Indicators Research, 97, 157–176.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Pollmann-Schult, M. (2014). Parenthood and life satisfaction: Why don’t children make people happy? Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 319–336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Pradhan, M., & Ravallion, M. (2000). Measuring poverty using qualitative perceptions of consumption adequacy. Review of Economics and Statistics, 82, 462–471.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Rasul, I. (2008). Household bargaining over fertility: Theory and evidence from Malaysia. Journal of Development Economics, 86, 215–241.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Scitovsky, T. (1978). The joyless economy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  68. Sen, A. (2001). Development as freedom (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  69. Short, S., & Kiros, G.-E. (2002). Husbands, wives, sons, and daughters: Fertility preferences and the demand for contraception in Ethiopia. Population Research and Policy Review, 21, 377–402.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Stanca, L. (2012). Suffer the little children: Measuring the effects of parenthood on well-being worldwide. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 81, 742–750.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. United Nations. (2011). The millennium development goals report 2011 (Report). New York, NY: United Nations.

  72. Van Praag, B. M. S., & Ferrer-i-Carbonell, A. (2006). An almost integration: Free approach to ordered response models (Tinbergen Institute Discussion Paper No. 06-047/3). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Tinbergen Institute.

  73. Voas, D. (2003). Conflicting preferences: A reason fertility tends to be too high or too low. Population and Development Review, 29, 627–646.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Westoff, C. F. (2010). Desired number of children: 2000–2008 (DHS Comparative Reports, No. 25). Calverton, MD: ICF Macro.

  75. Willis, R. J. (1982). The direction of intergenerational transfers and demographic transition: The Caldwell hypothesis reexamined. Population and Development Review, 8(Suppl.), 207–234.

  76. Woldemicael, G., & Tenkorang, E. Y. (2010). Women’s autonomy and maternal health-seeking behavior in Ethiopia. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 14, 988–998.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors gratefully acknowledge financial support from the European Research Council under the European ERC Grant Agreement no StG-313617 (SWELL-FER: Subjective Well-being and Fertility, P.I. Letizia Mencarini).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pierluigi Conzo.

Electronic supplementary material


(DOCX 205 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Conzo, P., Fuochi, G. & Mencarini, L. Fertility and Life Satisfaction in Rural Ethiopia. Demography 54, 1331–1351 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-017-0590-2

Download citation


  • Fertility
  • Life satisfaction
  • Subjective well-being
  • Development
  • Gender