Understanding the Gap between Fertility Ideals and Intentions in Four Postindustrial Societies

Xiana Bueno and Mary Brinton write about the gap between fertility ideals and intentions in Sweden, Japan, the United States and Spain.

Low fertility has been at the forefront of demographers’ research agendas in recent decades. Fertility rates in many developed societies have quickly fallen below 1.5 children per woman. However, the ideal number of children remains centered at two children in most postindustrial countries. Many young adults say they would like to have two children, but they expect to have fewer. What explains this gap between fertility ideals and intentions?

Previous studies have explored the divergence between ideal fertility and completed fertility to understand why fertility ideals are frequently higher than realized fertility. We contribute to this investigation by exploring individuals’ reasoning about their fertility ideals and intentions as well as the gap between them. We analyze individuals’ reasoning in four postindustrial contexts: two very- low fertility countries (Japan and Spain) and two countries with slightly higher fertility (the U.S. and Sweden). These countries differ in their gender-role ideologies, labor market institutions, and family policy provisions – three factors that are known to influence fertility behavior.

Figure 1. Total Fertility Rate in Japan, Spain, the U.S. and Sweden, 1960-2012.

Figure 1. Total Fertility Rate in Japan, Spain, the U.S. and Sweden, 1960-2012.

Source: Human Fertility Database.


Our data consist of more than 200 in-depth interviews conducted in the four countries in 2012. Interviewees were all native-born, urban, highly-educated men and women between the ages of 24 and 35 who were in stable partnerships with no children or one child. Interviewees’ reasoning sheds light on the conditions and obstacles they perceive as important for fulfilling their fertility ideals and for moving from intentions to action.

Similarities and differences across countries in reasoning about ideals and intentions

Interviewees’ explanations of their fertility ideals and intentions are broadly similar across the four countries and across genders. There is a general consensus around a two-child ideal. Three main reasons were frequently mentioned by interviewees: to replicate their own (or their partner’s) natal family experience; to avoid having just one child, which many people associate with a child’s loneliness; and to have both a son and a daughter.

When discussing constraints that limit their ideal or intended number of children, interviewees most often mentioned general economic concerns and the cost of raising children. In Spain and Sweden, interviewees highlighted their concerns about job security and stable income. Worries about specific child-related costs differed slightly across countries. For instance, educational costs were raised exclusively by Japanese and American interviewees (in contrast, education is either free or very affordable in Spain and Sweden). The cost of childcare was one of the main worries expressed by Japanese, Spanish, and American interviewees, especially when it was expected that both parents would be in the labor force. Finally, the cost of housing was raised by many interviewees in Spain and the U.S. as an obstacle to having a second child.

Explaining the fertility ideals-intentions gap

It might be expected that the gap between ideals and intentions would be larger in nations with very low fertility (Japan and Spain), and indeed this is what we find in looking at the combined results for men and women. However, the results by gender suggest a more complex picture. Surprisingly, American and Swedish female respondents reported an ideals-intentions gap as often as Spanish women did, whereas the number of female respondents reporting a gap in Japan was lower.

Figure 2. Number of Interviewees With and Without a Fertility Ideals/Intentions Gap, by Sex.

Figure 2. Number of Interviewees With and Without a Fertility Ideals/Intentions Gap, by Sex

Source: Project interviews


The reasons for the ideals-intentions gap also varied across country contexts. American and Swedish women were more likely than those in Japan and Spain to cite work-family conflict, but this was rooted in different causes. American female interviewees, living in a context where paid parental leave is quite rare and market-based childcare is expensive, expected to have to take on the primary childrearing role. Their fertility ideals were frustrated by the limited childcare options they had available in an environment where gender egalitarianism and family-friendly institutions and policies are not fully developed. In contrast, Swedish female interviewees’ comments reflected the strong social norm that men and women should be equally engaged in both paid and unpaid work. Unlike the other countries in the study, the Swedish institutional context gives full support to a gender egalitarian work-family balance. This expectation ironically puts pressure on women to obtain a permanent position in the labor market, which in turn appears to temper their fertility aspirations mainly through the postponement of births.

Our results also suggest that gender inequality is more important in generating low fertility intentions among interviewees in Japan than in Spain. The persistence of traditional gender roles leads Japanese women to assume that they will take on the caregiving role, while many men assume they will work long hours as the family breadwinner. As a result, Japanese men and women rarely mentioned engaging in any negotiation of household roles, and Japanese women only infrequently expressed tension between their fertility ideals and intentions. Instead, their ideals were lower than those of women in the other three countries. In contrast, women’s employment in Spain is generally supported by progressive gender-role norms. However, the labor market is precarious even for the highly educated, and economic uncertainty emerged as a more important factor than gender egalitarianism in shaping interviewees’ fertility intentions. Both male and female Spanish interviewees generally assume that women’s employment is a necessary source of household income, and as a result, many expect to have fewer than their ideal number of children.


Figure 3. Sample distribution by ideal and intended number of children. Japan, Spain, the U.S. and Sweden, 2012

Figure 3. Sample distribution by ideal and intended number of children. Japan, Spain, the U.S. and Sweden, 2012

Source: Project interviews


From our interview data, we conclude that the Swedish and American environments generate a different type of work-family conflict for highly educated women than in gender-unequal countries such as Japan. Ironically, work-family conflict in Sweden and the U.S., both of which have somewhat more moderate fertility levels than Japan and Spain, is more pronounced in individuals’ narratives because mothers’ employment is taken-for-granted to a greater extent. Our interviews also suggest that the dynamics of gender inequality may be instrumental in generating lower fertility intentions among the highly educated in Japan than in Spain. This highlights the distinctiveness among very-low fertility countries. Taken together, our findings suggest that gender inequality affects fertility intentions in complex ways among highly-educated young men and women in postindustrial contexts.



Note: This is an extended version of the text posted in PopDigest by Population Europe based on the published journal article: BRINTON, Mary C., BUENO, Xiana, OLAH, Livia and HELLUM, Merete (2018): Postindustrial Fertility Ideals, Intentions, and Gender Inequality: A Comparative Qualitative Analysis, Population and Development Review, 44(2): 281-309.

Mary C. Brinton is Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. Her current work focuses on low fertility in East Asia, Southern Europe, and Eastern Europe.

Xiana Bueno is a sociologist and holds a PhD in demography from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). She is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Postdoctoral Fellow for the period 2016-2019 at Harvard University. Currently, her research is focused on studying family and fertility patterns in postindustrial societies, particularly in Spain.


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  1. […] Explaining the Gap between Fertility Ideals and Intentions in Four Postindustrial Societies […]

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