Very low fertility rates have come to characterize a broad range of postindustrial societies from Europe to East Asia, with the average number of children per woman dropping to as low as 1.2 in a number of countries. This comparative project addresses the question of why some societies have experienced such a dramatic drop in fertility while others have maintained fertility rates around 2.0, much closer to the level necessary for the population to naturally replace itself.

Rates far below the level of population replacement portend a range of future problems for the societies experiencing them. These problems include a shortage of prime-age workers, slower economic growth, and increasing government expenditures to support an expanding elderly population. In response to very low fertility rates, many governments have developed workplace policies to facilitate work-family balance, especially for women. But in many countries including those in East Asia, these policies have done little to raise fertility. The public policy importance of what demographers have come to call "lowest-low fertility" calls for a concerted effort to understand the social, economic, and cultural forces that have led to steep fertility declines in the postindustrial world.

This project posits that in societies with rigid cultural definitions of family and gender roles, large numbers of young men and women delay marriage and childbearing when economic conditions are depressed. This occurs because young men are unable to fulfill the normative expectations of being the family breadwinner. Delayed marriage and childbearing result in very low fertility rates. These forces are most evident in the countries of Southern Europe and East Asia. Accordingly, the project will conduct semi-structured in-depth interviews of urban men and women age 25-34 in Spain and Japan, two countries that respectively represent these regions, and in the U.S. as a comparison case. The principal hypotheses are: 1) the young men most likely to postpone marriage and childbearing will be those who are experiencing economic distress (unstable employment or unemployment) while simultaneously holding highly conservative conceptions of family and gender roles; 2) the young women most likely to postpone marriage and childbearing will be those who are experiencing relative success in the labor market but who hold highly conservative conceptions of women's proper role in the family; and 3) these forces will be present to a much larger degree in Spain and Japan than in the U.S.

Broader Impacts

This project will generate a rich understanding of young people's marriage and fertility aspirations and the barriers they perceive to attaining these goals in two societies experiencing very low fertility (Spain and Japan) and one society maintaining moderate fertility. The project will provide deeper knowledge than existing studies of low fertility based entirely on survey data. The knowledge generated by the project will be disseminated to policymakers in low-fertility postindustrial societies to inform public policies to facilitate family formation.

Project Report

This project collected in-depth structured interviews of over 80 young adults in each of three research sites (Japan, Spain, and the U.S.) in order to analyze the determinants of family formation. The specific aim of the project is to understand why fertility has dropped to "lowest-low" levels in some postindustrial societies but not others. Separate funding was used to add two additional sites (Sweden and South Korea) to the study, so that comparisons can be made across three very low-fertility settings (Spain, Japan, and South Korea) in different regions of the world (Southern Europe and East Asia) and two moderate-fertility settings (Sweden and the U.S.) in different regions (Europe and North America). The main theory being tested with the qualitative data is whether gender inequality, especially in the sphere of the household, is dampening fertility rates in the postindustrial era. While theory linking gender inequity to lower fertility in postindustrial societies has been proposed in the comparative fertility literature, the theory has not been tested by looking systematically at different cultural contexts. Moreover, this project pays attention to how the structure of labor markets in different countries provides support for the male breadwinner model whereby women assume the primary housework and childcare role and men fulfill their family responsibilities through earning income. Labor markets and social policies that maintain the male breadwinner role contravene the universal trend of women's increased education and increased labor force participation rates. This study argues that this tension between women's increased opportunity in the public sphere and continued primary responsibility in the private sphere dampens fertility and creates a greater disconnect between couples' fertility intentions (which tend to center around 2 children) and outcomes (which may be 1 child). Moreover, lower fertility is also caused by the increasing delay in marriage resulting from the inability of young men in male breadwinner societies going through economic recessions to secure stable employment. In this manner, the gender essentialism inherent in the male breadwinner ideology and associated attitudes and policies exerts downward pressure on fertility. Data gathered in this study constitute a rich database of the gender-role attitudes, working conditions, fertility ideals and intentions, childcare preferences and arrangements, and attitudes towards marriage, childbearing, the household division of labor, and family policies among young men and women in varying cultural contexts in the postindustrial world. Two research monographs--one that is comparative and one that is centered on the U.S.--are underway, as well as multiple research papers.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Saylor Breckenridge
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Harvard University
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