Expert Commentary

Are better educated women more likely to be childless? An investigation in Europe

Researchers from the Vienna Institute of Demography study the relationship between childlessness and educational attainment among women from 13 European countries.

(David Trilling)

Researchers from the Vienna Institute of Demography examine the relationship between childlessness and educational attainment among women from 13 European countries.

The issue: The U.S. fertility rate slipped to an estimated 60.9 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 during the second quarter of 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two years previously, the fertility rate was 61.9 births per 1,000. While a smaller percentage of American women are having children, more women are going to college. Data from the federal Census Bureau indicates that the proportion of American women with at least a bachelor’s degree continues to rise and, in 2014, overtook the proportion of men: 30.2 percent of women had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 29.9 percent of men.

Scholars have investigated whether these trends are linked. So far, the research suggests that the relationship between education and fertility is complex. A 2014 study published in The Economic Journal, for example, finds that changes in the cost of childcare have helped highly educated women afford to have more children and work longer hours. On the other hand, a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center indicates that better educated women are more likely to forgo having children altogether.

 An academic study worth reading: The Limited Effects of Increasing Educational Attainment on Childlessness Trends in Twentieth-Century Europe, Women Born 1916-65,” published in Population Studies, 2016.

Study summary: Eva Beaujouan, Zuzanna Brzozowska and Krystof Zeman of the Vienna Institute of Demography add to the growing body of research on this topic by examining the relationship between childlessness and educational attainment among women in Europe. The authors analyzed data from censuses and large-scale surveys from 13 countries in eastern and western Europe, including Austria, France, Hungary and Spain. They focused on women born between 1916 and 1965.

 Key findings:

  • The proportion of women considered to have a “low” education has fallen drastically in all 13 countries while the proportion of women with “medium” education levels has risen significantly over time. Younger women were more likely than older women to be categorized as having “high” education levels. But the proportion of highly educated women has grown much more slowly than the proportion of women with medium education levels.
  • The proportion of women who were permanently childless at age 40 or older varied over time and by country. Over the 20th century, childlessness declined for all countries in the study until a cohort of women born between 1936 and 1940 prompted changes in the trend. After that, childlessness tended to increase in western Europe. In eastern Europe, childlessness tended to level off or continue to fall.
  • The authors theorize that socio-economic changes affected family formation across all educational levels. For example, in the first two decades after World War II, factors such as low unemployment and increasing wages for men made it easier for women of all education levels to start families.
  • Changes in educational levels only marginally contributed to changing rates of childlessness. “Over time, childlessness levels of the medium-educated and high-educated became closer to those of the low-educated, but the difference in level between the two better educated groups remained stable in Western and Southern Europe and increased slightly in the East.”

Helpful resources for journalists:

  • The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey is a primary source of data on childlessness, workforce issues and educational attainment in the U.S. Data on fertility can be found here.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics offers a variety of data on college attendance and completion. This table, created in 2015, looks at enrollment trends for males and females and includes projections through 2025.
  • The World Health Organization has released several reports on global infertility and childlessness.

Related research:


Keywords: fertility, women’s issues, demographics, family planning, birth control, education trends

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