Notes on the relationship between education and fertility among men

Jessica Nisén writes about educational differences in fertility among men.

Interest and literature on fertility patterns of men is on the increase among demographers. While educational differences in women’s fertility have been well documented, there is less corresponding research on men. The long-standing finding that women educated to higher levels often end up childless and have fewer children on average – a finding that also appears to be sensitive to time and place – does not apply to men. A recent report suggested that in several European countries men educated to higher levels may be less likely to remain childless.

We contribute to the understanding on men’s fertility overall and educational differentials therein by using data on Finnish men born in 1940-50.  In a study published in 2014 we first described men’s fertility by age group, parity, and educational group. In a follow-up study we included a number of other measures of men’s socioeconomic characteristics in childhood and adulthood, with the aim of shedding light on the mechanisms linking education to parity among men. We also compared brothers in order to find out whether characteristics shared by brothers would contribute to the educational differences in fertility among men.

Our descriptive findings showed a positive association between men’s educational attainment and their fertility among Finnish men, with the tertiary educated having 20 percent more children on average (Figure 1). A parity decomposition indicated that the main differences between men with basic and tertiary education lie in childlessness, specifically in higher childlessness among men with basic education. To a lesser extent also having a second child explains the positive educational gradient, whereas progression to higher-order parities has altogether a weak opposite effect. We also noted that, in terms of fertility accumulated up to a certain age, a positive link with attainment was witnessed from the early thirties, and that 95 percent of the eventual difference in fertility between basic and tertiary educated men could be measured by age 45.

Figure 1. Number of children by level of education, Finnish men born in 1940-50, N=37,082

Figure 1. Number of children by level of education, Finnish men born in 1940-50, N=37,082

Our follow-up study suggested that besides educational attainment, other indicators of a good socioeconomic position in adulthood, such as high income and high occupational position, are associated with higher levels of fertility among Finnish men. We also found that characteristics indicating socioeconomic standing in childhood, such as parental education, associated weakly positively with the number of children in adulthood. Socioeconomic characteristics in childhood were, however, not found to explain the educational gradient in the number of children among men. Analyzing within-family patterns here showed that even among brothers a higher educational attainment was associated with higher fertility. This suggests that factors that brothers share do not directly explain the association, but causal effects in adulthood are likely to be important.

Further, occupational position and income mediated a large share of the differences in the chance of ever entering fatherhood, whereas their respective mediating role in higher-parity progression appeared to be more modest. These characteristics mediated roughly a half of the association between education and overall number of children among men. Therefore it seems that economic standing in adulthood contributes to educational differences in men’s fertility in particular through the entry into parenthood which, in turn, is likely strongly related to partnership formation. Our findings are in line with another recent study which showed that selection into partnership is an important explanation for the educational differences in men’s entry into fatherhood in Europe.

Overall, the positive effect of a man’s socioeconomic characteristics on their entry into unions and parenthood can be interpreted through economic models emphasizing the positive effect of income as a resource for providing for a family. As an earlier study on Norwegian men emphasized, socioeconomic advantage of men is likely to enhance their attractiveness as partners and potential fathers. In this way, a stronger position in the labour market may strongly contribute to educational differences in men’s fertility overall. However, other explanations for the positive educational gradient in men’s fertility cannot be ruled out. For instance, lower educated men may prefer fewer children, although such a preference itself may be influenced by constraints to family formation.

What about the role of men’s participation in practical parenting? Men’s stronger commitment to sharing daily childcare and other unpaid household tasks with their partners has been hypothesized to contribute to more stable families and higher fertility in today’s developed societies. During the prime childbearing years of Finnish men born in 1940-50, the gender roles were less equal than they are in todays’ Finland, but more equal than in many European countries back then. Across countries, highly educated men have been forerunners in increasing their participation in childcare and other domestic work. I doubt that more gender equal attitudes and practices would have been the prime reason for the higher fertility of the more highly-educated Finnish men born in 1940-50, but what about their role for educational differences in men’s fertility today?


This post is based on two publications written by Jessica Nisén (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research), Professor Pekka Martikainen (University of Helsinki), Professor Mikko Myrskylä (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research) and Senior Lecturer Karri Silventoinen (University of Helsinki).

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