Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Sarah Irwin (2000) 'Reproductive Regimes: Changing Relations of Inter- dependence and Fertility Change'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <>

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Received: 31/1/2000      Accepted: 26/5/2000      Published: 31/5/2000


Within sociological and demographic research many argue that recent demographic transformations can be explained, at least in part, by a growth in individualism. Such approaches, with their emphasis on growing individual autonomy, offer a model of human action in which the social recedes from analysis. This paper offers an alternative framework for analysing processes shaping demographic change, taking as a particular focus aspects of changing patterns of fertility in the UK. Interpretations of the fertility decline at the turn of the twentieth century emphasise the importance of changing patterns of inter-dependence across generations and between women and men. It is argued that in parallel, although to a lesser degree, recent decades have manifest a change in the social positioning of these groups. Change in the reproductive regime is offered as a concept for denoting this restructuring of inter-dependencies. We are witnessing a reconfiguration of social ties and not their displacement. It is as an integral part of such changes that developments in fertility are best interrogated.

Childlessness.; Demographic Transition; Family Formation; Fertility; Gender; Generation; Inter-dependence; Reproductive Regime


Recent decades have witnessed a series of significant demographic developments which, for many commentators, reveal a transformation in patterns of relational and reproductive behaviour. Apparently linked, the developments include decline in rates of fertility, an increased incidence of childlessness, growth in cohabitation and in the proportion of births outside marriage, rapidly increasing divorce rates, and growth in step-parenting. The developments are described by some authors as a second demographic transition,[1] to compare with the first demographic, principally fertility, transition at the turn of the twentieth century.

Of particular interest to this paper is the apparent convergence of some recent sociological explanations of change in family demography and interpretations of change by demographers. Within sociology an influential position is that family ties and obligations appear increasingly anachronistic in the modern age, as current trends encourage, or force, increased individual autonomy and choice and an associated dissolution of prior family forms (eg. Bauman 1995, Beck 1992). Within demography Lesthaeghe has argued, influentially, that ideational change is important to understanding the second demographic transition, with a growing value placed on individual rights and autonomy in the latter part of the twentieth century (eg. Lesthaeghe 1998, Lesthaeghe and Surkyn 1988). In other words the motivations of demographic behaviour are deemed to have changed in recent decades.

I will argue that accounts which emphasise individualisation as a key trend shaping demographic changes are, in fact, partial. As we will see, they over- privilege choice and individual autonomy within explanation, and risk emptying human conduct of its social content. Arguments of individualisation offer a limited interpretation of the changing social relations which are influencing contemporary transformations, typically locating them in a long run 'working out' of historical contradiction, or within an unfolding linear historical logic. There are similarities here with another demographic perspective in which current developments in fertility patterns are interpreted as a continuation of trends set in place over one hundred years ago (eg. Cliquet 1991). However, this view has to account for the increases in fertility rates in the early post-war decades which confound the long term 'trend' to fertility decline. Additionally, the notion of continuity does not readily square with any detailed consideration of the vastly different contexts of fertility behaviour across more than a century.

Whilst certain aspects of change in family demography are at the heart of much recent sociological research there has been relatively little engagement by sociologists with the processes shaping demographic change. This is unfortunate since the latter has a good deal to reveal, potentially, about changing social relationships. In the paper I will focus principally on aspects of changing fertility patterns. I use the notion of reproductive regime to denote the relational structures and ties between social groups as these reflect inter-dependencies, social claims, obligations and patterns of care. It includes, but also helps to locate, patterns of sexual reproduction. It is my argument that changing patterns of fertility behaviour can be best understood not as a result of a new (and newly intense) round of individualisation in the current era nor as outcomes of an unfolding linear historical logic. Rather, recent changes can, like prior ones, be located within changing reproductive regimes which hold within particular configurations of inter-dependence between social groups. One of the most general features of analyses of the first fertility decline is that it was intricately bound up with changing patterns of inter- dependence across generations and between women and men. It is an argument of this paper that these dimensions, of changing relations of inter-dependence between these groups, and change in their social location and claiming position, remain crucial to an understanding of recent patterns of fertility change. The discussion focuses on experience in the UK, although cross-national and regional experience suggests the wider potential of reproductive regime as an analytical tool in comparative research in industrialised Western nations.

Rationality, Individualism and Explanations of Contemporary Demographic Change

Influential figures within recent sociological and social demographic theorising have emphasised the importance of a growth in individualism in late modern society, identifying an increase in individual autonomy and a novel significance of individual agency and choice within social life. Paradoxically perhaps there are parallels here with the conception of individual action that lie within versions of economic theorising. It is therefore helpful to outline the latter, in the context of descriptions of the nature of demographic change.

Neoclassical economic theory hinges on a set of assumptions about the nature of human behaviour, and rational, utility maximising individuals are at the core of these assumptions. Gary Becker has been a driving force in the development of 'the economic approach', and influential in its application to areas of human experience not previously considered amenable to economic analysis (see Coleman 1993). The family is one such area. Becker's writings on the family have been influential and provide the background to the emergence of analysis of family organisation under the rubric of New Home Economics. Becker explores various postwar family demographic changes, including declining fertility, increasing divorce rates, and rapidly rising female participation in employment, locating these developments in relation to the growth in earning power of women as the economy develops. In the approach, the gendered division of labour in the household is understood as a strategy for maximising well being in the context of differential earnings between women and men (Becker 1991, see also Ermisch, 1988; de Cooman et al, 1987). Increased earning power for women raises their labour force participation since the opportunity costs of marriage and childbearing increase. Marriage becomes less attractive consequently, and fertility rates decline as the relative costs (to women) of children increase. This narrowing of wage differentials is consequently seen to generate demographic changes, including declines in fertility, trends towards delay in family formation, and increasing rates of divorce. As the advantages of the domestic division of labour diminish so the economic logic which ties women and men into given (unpaid caring and breadwinning) roles within the family dissipates and the conventional family form looks increasingly tenuous.

The initial process leading to increasing female wages is unspecified, a seemingly logical outcome of economic growth. For Becker the 'logic' of the domestic gender division of labour arose on the basis of women's natural proximity to childrearing. Presumably Becker now believes this state of affairs to have been superceded by a social challenge to 'the natural'. Yet we do not need to go too far back in history to see that the predicates of this 'natural' state of affairs are largely social (Tilly and Scott 1987; Honeyman 2000). The economic approach elides the potential importance of demographic processes in the structuring of gender inequalities within employment. It offers us a model of decision making and behaviour in given contexts, rather than offering an adequate theory of such behaviour. Empirical evidence highlights the difficulty of accepting context as given, with a reversal of the relationship between female labour force participation and fertility rates, across European countries, between the 1970s and 1990s (Coleman 1998). Neoclassical theory too has been widely criticised for treating the economy as a distinct arena of human activity. Rather we should locate 'economic' processes as predicated on social and cultural bases (eg. Swedberg et al 1987, Friedland and Robertson 1990, Di Maggio 1990, Rubery 1996).

For some commentators it is notable that the cultural bases of social interaction have undergone significant changes which are bound up with processes of individualisation. Paradoxically, the figure who emerges in these accounts bears some resemblance to the individualistic decision making units of neoclassical economic theory. The term individualisation is generally used to signify a diminution in the strength and permanence of social ties and obligations which previously bound people into groups, networks and allegiances which were crucial to their social experiences, beliefs and ways of acting in the world, in short, to their social identities. Many have argued that emergent trends in family demography, and new forms of diversity in family arrangements, can be understood in terms of a growth in individualism and a change in the nature of the social, or moral ties that bind individuals and groups in contemporary society (eg. Aries 1980; Beck 1992; Bauman 1995; MacInnes 1998). The emphasis on individualism, or the changing relationship of the individual to the contemporary social environment, is seen to help account for new forms of diversity in family structure (eg. McRae 1997) and, for some writers, a greater autonomy of individuals and freedom (or a new need) to be authors of their own biographies and lifestyles (eg. Beck 1992; Strohmeier and Kuijsten 1997).

Traditional status constraints with respect to gender are weakening and, in some versions, the commodification of female labour is paralleled by a growing contingency of family relationships, and it is here that explanations of demographic transition are located. In this way, social ties give way to the logic of capital accumulation which consequently draws in cheaper female labour. Beck argues that a consequence is the marketisation of family relationships, and a growing contradiction between reproduction and production, or between the spheres of family and work (Beck 1992). Family relationships are undermined and increasingly contingent. In a parallel argument MacInnes maintains that a long term process of rationalization in the cultural sphere draws women into the labour market on similar terms to men - and this too transforms the basis of demographic behaviours and familial ties (MacInnes 1998).

Lesthaeghe is a demographer who has long advocated the importance of a cultural interpretation of economic logics and demographic behaviour (Lesthaeghe 1998, Lesthaeghe and Surkyn 1988). He has identified patterns of cultural change which he characterises in terms of ideational shift. This is construed as a long term trend to increased individual autonomy, and a diminished acceptability of institutional regulation of family life. Individuals are more free to choose and this greater freedom or autonomy is the key cultural dynamic altering family demography (Lesthaeghe 1998). Lesthaeghe proposes a form of explanatory eclecticism in which different, micro-economic and cultural, theories may have differing salience in relation to different aspects (or stages) of the problem under consideration. However, it may be that the scope for convergence of theories lies in the similarity of the individual who emerges in models of cultural, ideational shift and the "rational" (a-social) individual of neo- classical economic theory.

There are two, linked, difficulties arising from these accounts on which I wish to focus, as background to developing an alternative perspective on recent changes. The first difficulty relates to the articulation of culture in many recent accounts of demographic behaviours. We need reflect upon the parallels between the above explanations of changing family demography and neo-classical economic assumptions about how people act. In both perspectives people appear to be individualised decision-making units, a view which tends to absent culture from accounts of contemporary social action (eg. Irwin 1995, Irwin and Bottero 2000. See also Oppenheimer 1994; Block 1990; van Krieken 1997). Accounts of individualisation and of ideational shift provide a novel gendered dimension to descriptions of change yet it sometimes seems that rational economic man has been joined by rational economic woman. The shadows of the past appear to give way to a contemporary figure with no shadow at all: the rational modern individual.[2] Additionally, the notion that female labour is being 'commodified' raises difficulties since the labour of young and older workers has been 'decommodified' over the period under consideration. In particular, since the early 1970s, women have spent significantly greater amounts of time in paid employment through the middle stages of the life course, whilst young adults and older workers have become much less likely to be in paid employment. Commodification is an economic process which should not admit 'social' (life course related) boundaries. Block sees as one of the central conceits of modernity the supposition that our institutions are 'shaped by the dictates of practical reason rather than by the kinds of deeply held, but unexamined, collective beliefs that are known to dominate in less enlightened societies' (Block, 1990: p.27). Cultural patterns and related inter-dependencies still shape people's lives and livelihoods and the ways in which they interact.

The second major difficulty with accounts of individualisation and rationalisation lies in the tendency to view economic and cultural processes in terms of an unfolding logic. In consequence, history is reconstructed in a linear fashion, in terms of how we arrived at the present. The 'logic' of capitalist development is accompanied by a 'logic' of demographic transition, within which prior social, familial ties break down under the pressures of an individualising tendency, engendered by economic change and, in some versions, by a partly autonomous cultural process of rationalisation (Beck 1992; MacInnes 1998; and cf. Van Krieken, 1997). The 'longue duree' view seems to imply an unfolding logic or working out of some historical contradiction. History is analysed from the perspective of 'where it has got us'. This may turn out to be a retrospective mythologising of historical tendencies. An alternative perspective is that we should not be too taken with the longue duree view with its tendency to bulldoze historical complexity and diversity (Szreter 1996, Levine 1987).

Problems arise in viewing the modern period as witnessing an unfolding logic towards gender equality and, associated, declining fertility, given that the last half century has witnessed both rising and falling fertility rates. Further, the idea that the decline in fertility from the 1960s to the 1980s was a continuation of a trend established in the early decades of this century seems to gloss over the very different contexts and meanings of patterns of reproductive behaviour across these periods.

As explanations of changing demographic behaviour, constructions of individualisation, rationalisation or modernisation are too aggregated and they pay insufficient attention to 'context' more specifically to changing patterns of association and inter-dependence between social groups which are key in theorising demographic change. Recent developments appear to have generated new forms of diversity with a reconfiguration of the social ties which bind and differentiate social groups.

Building an Alternative Take on Demographic Change

In contrast to the assumptions of micro-economic theory and theses of individualisation some recent demographic research has emphasised the significance of context and contingency for locating and understanding demographic behaviours. What it implies, particularly through accounts of the first fertility decline, is that we can profitably conceive of different reproductive regimes or modes of reproduction. In such accounts patterns of sexual reproduction are linked to change in the organisation of social reproduction more generally - broadly, the social arrangements through which people resource their livelihoods day to day and across generations. The notion of reproductive regime which I develop here denotes the configuring of social relations and inter-dependencies, including patterns of obligation, care and claims to resources and recognition. A change in the reproductive regime refers to the emergence of new configuring of relations, and hence positions, and identities, of social groups. The perspective is indicative of how we might locate recent changes not in some unfolding logic, but rather in a shift in the reproductive regime one in which we need to continue an historically appropriate focus on social ties and inter-dependencies, and analyse the ways in which they have changed their form or configuration.

We can indicate the salience of 'changing contexts' through looking at arguments about rationality. From these perspectives there is no prior assumption of the nature of rational behaviour, rather theorists attempt to uncover the contexts in which different kinds of behaviour becomes rational. For Handwerker, in a critique of economic, cost-benefit analyses, the notion of irrational behaviour reflects a tension within theory since ".. choices can be irrational only for the person observing the choices made by others, and then only when the observer starts from the wrong premise" (Handwerker 1986, p10-11). Handwerker defines culture in terms of the ideas by which individuals order material experience and assign value to its elements. He suggests that attempts to explain demographic (or other) behaviours over the long run, by reference to the same factors, are doomed since

".. variables included in decision-making models cannot have consistent effects. The effect of a given variable must be contingent on the manner in which it is conceptualized, and the manner in which it is conceptualized must be relative to specific culture regions and culture- historical periods" (Handwerker 1986, p11)

Similarly, Szreter emphasizes the importance of interpreting economic rationality as contingent upon its cultural context:

"Differences in the cultural values and the social and political institutions of different times or different places (or indeed different social groups in the same time and place) will significantly affect the forms and flows of information perceived by individuals as relevant to their economic priorities" (Szreter 1996, p.39).

For Szreter, even if one assumes the significance of economic forms of rationality in shaping fertility behaviour, what is required is an understanding of the information contexts in which people perceive as relevant, and act upon, forms of knowledge and understanding which are culturally situated. A priority should be elucidating the nature and causes of change in these knowledge contexts (Szreter 1996). Such changes appear to be inseparable from reconfigurations of social relations. It is instructive to explore how aspects of the first demographic transition have been theorised. The following account is selective. Its objective is to set some recent developments in historical perspective, and to highlight theoretical insights which are of value in interpreting late twentieth century demographic developments.

The First Fertility Decline

The European fertility revolution is widely cited as occurring between the 1870s and the 1930s. This period saw a remarkably rapid, and European wide, decline in fertility rates. Within the UK the marriage cohort of 1860-'69 had an average of 6.16 children, those who were married between 1890-'99 had an average of 4.13 children and those who were married between 1920-'24 had an average of 2.31 children (Levine 1987).[3] Of the 1870s marriage cohort, 51.6% had 6 or more children yet of the 1925 marriage cohort, only 6.7% had 6 or more children (Anderson 1998). This was a remarkable and dramatic change in the space of just two generations, with birth rates falling to unprecedented lows. An historical first, too, was that 'stopping' had become a key strategy of family limitation. Historically fertility regulation had been achieved through late marriage, principally, and through the spacing of births yet:

"Beginning in the 1870s .. women were starting to stop before the end of their fertile years signalling not only a fundamental strategic change in patterns of family limitation but new attitudes towards fertility itself" (Gillis et al 1992, p.2).

Interestingly these changing attitudes towards having children are suggested not only by the aggregate declines in family size, but by novel family size distributions. Anderson notes how most accounts of the European fertility decline have offered analyses of 'aggregated behaviour', paying remarkably little attention to emergent distributions. In fact the decline in large families of 6 or more children was accompanied by marked increases in very small families. Some figures illustrate the drama of the change. In the UK, of those who married in the 1870s 8.3% remained childless, of those who married between 1900 and 1909 11.3% remained childless, and of those who married in 1925 16% remained childless. Amongst the same three successive marriage cohorts, those who had a single child rose from 5.3% to 14.8% to 25.2%. Thus families with one child or no children increased from 13.6% for the 1870's marriage cohort to 41.3% amongst the 1925 marriage cohort (Anderson 1998, also Hobcraft 1996).

How has the first fertility decline been interpreted? The main (and most general) dimensions of change to be identified lie in shifting economic and social relationships which altered the material and normative bases (and rationalities) for influencing fertility behaviours and related values and expectations. Amongst the social transformations of this period, linked by some to a round of economic restructuring, were changes in the nature of the family economy and related shifts in patterns of inter-dependence between generational and gender groups. These changes contributed to altering the perceived costs of children, and the nature of costs and benefits which accrued to having (or not having) children. Some significant changes at a societal level are widely construed as having a major role in changing fertility patterns. In particular, the extension of legislation restricting child labour, and the introduction of compulsory education, raised the relative costs of children. Additionally, improved living standards became a real possibility for many working class households if they had fewer children (Tilly and Scott 1987). Of course culture, and the meanings assigned to material and institutional changes, are seen as key by many authors. The nature of cultural change is apprehended at different levels of generalisation from the macro level of changing institutional arrangements, to the micro-level of spousal relationships. The following review indicates insights from writers operating at these different levels of theorisation.

John Caldwell has been credited with formalising an alternative to the economic determinism of modernisation theory. Caldwell attempts to locate economic considerations as these motivated fertility behaviour within a newly altered cultural context. A key determinant of fertility behaviour is seen by Caldwell as the direction of inter-generational wealth flows. The fertility transition was induced by the introduction of mass, compulsory education (Caldwell, 1980). For Caldwell, mass education led to a restructuring of family relations and altered the direction of wealth flow across generations. In pre-transition society the standard of living of households depended largely on labour inputs. High fertility was rational in this context. The introduction and extension of mass education from the 1870s meant that rather than wealth flowing 'up' generations, from children to parents, through the formers' contribution to household resourcing from a young age, wealth now flowed 'down' from parents to children, in support of their new and prolonged economic dependence. Consequently incentives for reproducing were radically altered, and birth rates declined rapidly (Caldwell 1980).

Handwerker argues that in Caldwell's model the link between wealth flow and behaviour is blurred. What is needed is additional specification of how changes in material factors alter values and behaviour by altering the means by which people create and stabilize income flows (Handwerker 1986). For him the period in the latter part of the nineteenth century saw a shift in lines of access to strategic resources away from kinship and other personal relations and towards formal education and skill training. He argues that fertility transition did not straightforwardly follow the onset of mass education but followed from its conjunction with changes in the opportunity structure that increasingly rewarded educationally acquired skills and perspectives (Handwerker 1986).

In some ways this echoes Banks' analysis of fertility decline amongst the Victorian middle classes (Banks 1954). Banks stressed the importance of middle class aspirations for their children's futures, and the growing attainability, for sons, of access to 'gentlemanly' jobs in the professions. In a context where commerce was growing more rapidly than industry and with a formalising of entry criteria to some of the professions, parents invested more in their children's futures, and expenditure on prolonged education became more customary. Despite a context of economic recession in the 1870s middle class parents were determined to maintain the prospects of their children and the growing relative costs provided a significant disincentive to having large families (Banks 1954).

Of course the above are highly aggregated, general accounts which do not address significant patterns of difference across locality and occupational groups which have been emphasised in more recent accounts and a number of writers have explored in detail changes in the perceived costs of childbearing and childrearing at a more disaggregated level. Indeed the notion of change in the perceived costs of having children, and its variation across socio- economic groups, is a key explanatory theme now, within a growing body of literature which focuses on class, and occupation, related patterns of fertility decline (eg. Gittens 1982, Levine 1987, Seccombe 1993, and Szreter 1996 being amongst some of the more widely cited). Szreter emphasizes multiple fertility declines in the context of diverse local cultural and occupational contexts. Although keen to stress diversity and contingency, and reluctant to pin down any singular set of explanatory factors, Szreter does indicate a general consistency between patterns of fertility decline and the relationship of women and men in different occupational sectors, linked in with degree of unionisation (as a measure of the relative incorporation or exclusion of women from formal employment). Higher fertility rates are as seen by Szreter to be associated with the prevalence of a family form dominated by the unionised male breadwinner, where married women were socially segregated and had few or no economic opportunities or roles outside the home. Mining communities were the exemplar of this kind of fertility context. Lower fertility rates were associated with lower paid male workers with no, or weak, union bargaining power, and where women were employed in the formal economy. Childbearing and rearing would impose severe financial difficulties in this context. Communities based around the textiles industries would be exemplary of this 'type'. For Szreter, reproductive behaviour is contingent on degree of male political organisation, the division of gendered roles in work and in the household, the degree of cooperation and communication between spouses in their sexual and reproductive behaviours, and degree of mutual responsibility for the household budget (Szreter 1996).

Gittens offers a similar prognosis, although she also stresses the importance of spousal relations and knowledge of contracepting, as an important dimension of gendered power relationships (Gittens 1982). Other work in the area of class related variation in patterns of fertility has also highlighted the importance of gender relations to an adequate theorisation of changing demographic behaviour (eg. Gillis 1992, Seccombe 1993). Writers have stressed the problems of treating the reproductive couple as a unitary subject rather than as a two people with different identities and often with different interests and concerns. The fertility decline is widely interpreted as an outcome of changes in economic circumstances and in patterns of household resourcing which altered the relative costs and benefits of having children. The associated material and relational changes altered the pattern of motivations which shaped reproductive behaviour (indeed made family limitation fall within the realm of conscious choice). These in turn entailed profound shifts in practices of birth control. For Seccombe the alteration in the structure of the family economy in working class households led to a convergence in the interests of women and men, where men acquired a desire to limit family size which put them more in line with a longer standing female preference for family limitation. In particular the economic costs of multiple births increased and the family income benefits decreased as children were increasingly excluded from the realm of paid labour and incorporated within the new system of schooling. Seccombe also stresses the shift in subjective reasoning. In particular, he argues, an altered, medicalised discourse of pregnancy in the early decades of the twentieth century allowed women the possibility of some control, at least removing multiple childbearing from the realm of the natural and inevitable (Seccombe 1993; see also Gittens 1982).

Within the above perspectives on the fertility decline, all writers are exploring the nature of a shift in the reproductive regime, and central to this is a reconfiguration of patterns of inter-dependence between groups. In particular there were important changes in the family economy and the relative positioning of women and men, and of children and parents, within that family economy. As we have seen patterns of inter-dependency and exchange across generations and between women and men have an important place within many interpretations of the causes and nature of the first fertility decline. These groups are seen to have acquired a novel positioning within the organisation of social reproduction.

Generation and gender relations do not define, nor explain, trends in fertility decline, yet they give crucial insights into the (re)configuration of the reproductive regime of the period. I would argue that in parallel, although to a lesser degree, recent decades are manifesting changes in the reproductive regime.

Post-War to the Present Day: Fertility Trends and Explanation

The post war period has seen a significant rise in fertility followed by a sustained decline: the so- called baby boom and baby bust. The general pattern is European wide, although with important national variations. In the following discussion and analyses I again focus on UK patterns and trends. In the UK the Total Period Fertility Rate[4] has been quite stable at around 1.8 since 1980[5]. Following the Second World War there was a sharp peak in fertility rates (at 2.75) and then the TPFR remained close to 2.1 (the population replacement rate) until the mid 1950s. For the next ten years there was a rapid increase in fertility rates to a peak, of 2.95, in 1964. This then fell to 1.69 in 1977, the lowest fertility level on record (Armitage and Babb 1996). There was a slight rise after, to 1.89 in 1980, and a fairly stable rate subsequently. It is important to outline the component parts of change in patterns of fertility. The two major components are change in family size and change in the timing of parenthood. In respect of the fertility decline, it was the dimininishing likelihood of having large families which initiated the decline in the 1960s, and the pattern of delay in the timing of parenthood which entrenched the decline in the 1970s (Hobcraft 1996).

In aggregate there has been a shift to later ages at first birth. Between 1989 and 1994 there was a crossover in the relative birth rates amongst women in their early twenties and women in their early thirties. Births to those aged 30 to 34 came to exceed births to those aged 20 to 24. In 1964, when fertility rates were at a peak, the average age of women at their first birth was 23.9 years. This increased relatively slowly to 24.4 years by 1977, nevertheless reversing a decades long trend to earlier childbearing. It has continued to increase, to 25.3 in 1989 and to 26.8 in 1997 (Armitage and Babb 1996, ONS 1997).

The ages at which women and men become parents has important repercussions for estimates of fertility, since a trend to earlier ages at parenthood will inflate the current fertility rate, whilst a pattern of deferral will deflate the current rate. Coleman suggests that it was earlier childbearing by women born in the 1940s which was responsible for a significant part of the baby boom of the 1960s and trends to later ages at parenthood caused the subsequent decline in annual births and period fertility rates (Coleman 1996). [6]

Change in family size is an important component of fertility trends, along with changes in the incidence of childlessness. For some writers childlessness appears to be the ultimate statement about a novel set of social relations in which individual autonomy becomes paramount. Amongst women aged 40 in 1997, 17% were childless. This contrasts with a low of 10% amongst women aged 40 in 1985. However it should be noted that of the cohort born in 1930 13% remained childless and amongst those born in 1950, 14% remained childless. Also we should recall that 21% of all women born in 1920 remained childless (ONS 1997). It is clearly premature to suggest, as some do, that significant proportions of people are 'abandoning parenthood'.

Many demographers point to key factors seen to influence fertility decline. Most prominent amongst these factors are patterns of increased female participation in education and paid employment, effectiveness of contraception, particularly since the advent of the Pill, and changing ideas and values which free up people (particularly women) from traditional expectations (eg. Bernhardt 1993, Cliquet 1993, Murphy 1993, Armitage and Babb 1996, Hobcraft 1996). It is, notably, explanatory difficulties which remain a key theme and concern of general commentaries in the area (eg. Bernhardt 1993, Oppenheimer 1994, Coleman 1998).

Gender issues are central to most contemporary accounts of changing fertility patterns. Changes in gendered relations are usually interpreted as an incorporation of women into the capitalistic wage labour market, either in terms of a 'rationalisation' in which gender equality is increasingly realised, or in terms of a 'catching up' where, for example, women acquire the same educational and employment opportunities which became available to men at the beginning of the twentieth century (Cliquet 1993). As we have seen, different theoretical positions would lead us to believe that there is a fairly direct causal relationship between improvements in women's employment and earnings position and an altered attractiveness of procreation and childcare responsibilities. A number of problems arise, however. Theses of the marketisation of family relationships appear to neglect, crucially, the evidence and analysis which reveals the still very significant and entrenched patterns of inequality between women and men in many sectors of society (eg. Walby 1997, Rubery et al 1999). The focus on women's position tends to be made at the exclusion of a more rounded appraisal of change in gendered positions and relations (Oppenheimer 1994). Also, it is inappropriate to search for a direct current causal relationship due to the historical mutuality of productive and reproductive processes. Historical changes in women's relations to childbearing and rearing are important to understanding changing gendered claims to employment. Since reproductive processes are reflected in the historical development of employment then to construe a current direct causal relationship, from employment to reproduction, is to bracket off a key component of understanding.

In the following I offer an account of change in aspects of fertility behaviour in which changing gender relations are crucial. However, change in the relative social positions of women and men are not equivalent to equalisation. Greater female autonomy and independence and a closing of various 'inequality gaps' is a partial aspect of change but not a general one. It therefore appears inadequate to locate demographic changes as an outcome of forms of gender equalisation. The alternative perspective is that we are witnessing changes in gendered positions in the reproduction of social life. Developments here are not separable from changes in generational patterns of inter-dependence and mutuality. Demographic changes need to be theorised in this context. The account developed here does not offer a definitive explanation of changing fertility patterns but reflects the more modest ambition of demonstrating the value of locating related changes as an aspect of change in the reproductive regime. In this way we can explore changing relations of inter-dependence and mutuality and their relation to changes in aspects of fertility related behaviour. The specific focus is on the timing of family formation and on patterns of childlessness.

To preface the argument in respect of the timing of family formation, trends towards later ages at parenthood are bound up with changing patterns of inter-dependence between women and men and across generations: a re-structuring rather than a de-structuring of family forms. Changes in household structure and in household resourcing reflect a shift in the relative position of women and men, and of generations, but continuity of inter-dependence across a transition in family formation behaviours.

The last quarter of a century has manifest a significant shift in the ages at which women and men become parents. From the 1970s there was a reversal of a long run trend to younger ages at family formation. Evidence on the timing of first births shows that women born from the mid 1950s onwards delayed the timing of their first birth, at ages over twenty, relative to previous cohorts (Thompson 1980). It is of particular interest to examine what was going on in respect of women's and men's relations to employment at this time since this is strongly suggestive of a mutuality of reproductive and productive processes occurring throughout alterations in patterns of demographic behaviour.

The evidence reveals a relationship between young women's and men's relative positioning in employment and their claims to independence and their location with respect to family reproduction. Patterns of deferral relative to prior generations in the acquisition of family obligations through family formation are associated with change in the relative social positioning of young women and men, and of different generations. From the mid 1970s the earnings of young women improved relative to the earnings of young men, whilst the latter declined relative to the earnings of middle aged men. The earnings of both young women and young men have become increasingly important to the resourcing of new households and families. There has been a growth in the importance of the co-resourcing of households in which women's earnings have become increasingly significant in patterns of household reproduction. The growing discrepancy between young men's earnings and middle aged male adult earnings from the mid 1970s onwards, and improvements in young women's relative earnings, are integral to an improved understanding of patterns of deferral in family formation, relative to previous cohorts. [7] Young adults have manifest a delay in the life course timing of establishing couple households and having children. The earnings of both partners appear increasingly necessary to resource new households and families at levels commensurate with contemporary lifestyle aspirations. These processes in respect of family formation have become more widely entrenched as women's income appears more significant throughout the family building stages and subsequently across a significant proportion of households (Machin and Waldfogel 1994, Irwin 1999).

Patterns of deferral in the timing of parenthood are also inseparable from long run changes in family size and structure and the historically novel ability of parents of young adult children to resource their continued partial dependence over a longer period of time than was hitherto possible. Throughout the course of the twentieth century there has been an increase in the affluence of families with children in their teens and early twenties that has been increasingly independent of the earnings contributions of those young adult children. Families have become smaller, the period spent childbearing became relatively compressed, historically, in the post war decades, there has been a growing prevalence of paid employment amongst married women 'returners' through the post-war period and recent cohorts of teenagers and young adults have typically had parents who are middle aged, and both working. In this way a prolonging of the partial dependence of youth has been enabled by changes in family structure. Recent developments are, of course, historical in nature. It is only be considering women's radically changed relationship to childbearing and childrearing over the course of the last hundred years that we can understand the dramatic changes in women's, and men's, relations to paid employment, and better interrogate change in patterns of inter-dependence across generations.

Whilst the idea of being able to afford children at a level consistent with material or lifestyle aspirations has a long history, both changing aspirations and change in the ways in which they are met have been crucial to altered patterns of family formation (see Irwin 1995). There is not the space here to explore all the factors which have influenced trends towards later ages at parenthood. The above discussion has not engaged directly with changing material aspirations, and related living costs, change in the reliability of contraception, nor the remarkable extension of post 16 education, although developments there are consistent with the changing relationships discussed.

There is a changed context of reproduction and integral to this is a shift in norms and expectations. For example, the notion of responsible motherhood appears to be undergoing change. What is now notable is the wider emergence of contexts in which it is the norm for mothers of young children to work in paid employment. In these contexts women's obligations to their children become less of an obstacle to paid employment, indeed for many their childrearing obligations appear to demand participation in paid work.

The pattern of deferral in the timing of family formation reflects continuity of inter-dependence of women and men but a reconfiguring of their respective claims on employment and income, and of their mutual responsibilities and obligations in respect of childrearing. The development reflects a change in their relative positioning in social space: an altered set of relations between women and men and altered gendered relations to household and family resourcing.

Another component of fertility change, the recently increased rate of childlessness, has been construed as an indicator of broad social trends towards individualism yet has been subject to relatively little research. Some have pointed to the significance of caring responsibilties and roles in kinship networks in challenging notions of increased individualism (McAllister and Clarke 1998). McAllister and Clarke place in question the supposition that voluntary childlessness is increasing since, they argue, available research indicates a constant proportion of women (around 90%) born in the 1940s and up to the end of the 1960s either had, or expected to have, children (McAllister and Clarke 1998). This appears to confound the argument that we are witnessing a recent rise in deliberate intentions to avoid having children.

There is little research which addresses the question of why childlessness has increased its prevalence. Available research offers insights based on qualitative interpretations of women's accounts of their experiences in cultures dominated by ideologies of motherhood for women (Campbell 1999, Gillespie 1999, Morell 1994). Where authors offer an account of reasons for more women remaining childless they refer to the wider choices and opportunities available to women (Gillespie 1999) and to expanded opportunities to consider whether or not to ever have a child (Campbell 1999). The research is suggestive of the ways in which choice and constraint take on meaning within a changed reproductive context. It is not simply that women are more autonomous or more free to choose than in the past. This may be the case for some groups of women but choice is a problematic concept for understanding childlessness (Morell 1994, Campbell 1999). The diversity of routes to permanent childlessness are instructive here. Campbell distinguishes two general groups of women without children: those who have always known they do not want children, a factor crucial in planning their lives, and those who remain childless as a consequence of their lifestyles (Campbell 1999). This latter pattern is echoed by the women interviewed by Morell, for whom remaining childless was perceived not as a choice but as an outcome of a variety of circustances (Morell 1994). Morell challenges the norm of motherhood and associated devaluing of women who do not mother.

In explanatory terms, patterns of deferral in the timing of parenthood and the increasing incidence of childlessness appear to be closely related. This is not to 'judge' childlessness against a norm of (postponed) parenting but rather to seek to locate an understanding of childlessness in relation to processes leading to a reshaping of the reproductive regime. Many people have children later in life than their predecessors in the post war decades without explicitly choosing to have children 'late'. The pattern is an outcome of complex sets of processes which include change in the social location of women and men, and of different generations. Childlessness may follow on the back of patterns of deferral in the timing of parenthood. For various individuals and couples childlessness is not explicitly chosen, but is an outcome of precisely the kinds of processes that lead to 'deferral'. Women may pass their fertile years and become permanently childless 'by default' of circumstances in which they did not elect to bear children. For other individuals and couples childlessness is explicitly chosen from early on, and sought as a permanent status. It is not clear whether or not this preference has increased or not over recent decades. In both cases however, of being clear from an early age that one does not want children, and of remaining childless as a consequence of influences in later years, it appears that altered opportunities and bases of identity for women are key to theorising the changing prevalence of childlessness.

Change in the reproductive regime has generated new life course trajectories in which childlessness has become more common. In part this has to do with altered social locations, and subjective positions, of women. Women particularly have significantly altered their claims to education, employment and independence since the early post-war decades. These claims are integral to changes in women's social location relative to men. Change in social relational ties generate altered bases for identity formation and maintenance, and altered patterns of social recognition accorded to such identity. Morell argues that experiences of childlessness reveal a society wide norm of motherhood for women yet in some quarters it is childlessness which is increasingly the norm, particularly amongst significant groups of young adults in their twenties and amongst other groups in their thirties and beyond. One of the older women in Morell's study, aged 76, described her childlessness as a product of the times in which she was a young woman. As we have seen childlessness was as common in the early part of the century as now, yet there is also much evidence of an ideology of motherhood which permeated that era. Social diversity is not new, although its contemporary form requires interrogation.

In sum, change in gendered positions, and in women's claims to independence and ability to resource it, change in patterns of participation in post-16 education, change in patterns of access to employment, and relative rewards to employment, and change in the organisation and resourcing of families of origin as well as of destination are all integral to trends to deferral in the timing of parenthood as this has occurred since the 1970s. So, too, they are integral to the linked expansion of childlessness. I have argued that at the heart of change in the aspects of fertility addressed are changes in the relative position of women and men, themselves not separable from changing relations between generations. These shifts are less dramatic than those which characterised the first fertility decline. However, what is key is the evidence which reveals a reconfiguration of the relative positions of women and men, and generations. In short, we are witnessing a change in the structuring of social reproduction, a change in the configuring of social ties. It is as an integral part of such changes that developments in patterns of fertility can be best interrogated.


It has been an argument of this paper that theses of individualisation from within both demographic and sociological theorising offer a partial take on recent social changes and do not properly capture the social nature of processes shaping recent demographic developments. Notions of an historical logic, say of modernisation or rationalisation, which drive demographic change in a certain direction, are flawed not only by virtue of problems of empirical 'fit', but also through overstating the continuities between very different historical cultural contexts. The paper has reviewed and drawn upon discussions of the first fertility transition at the turn of the twentieth century, elaborating on how fertility decline was inextricably bound up with a reconfiguring of social relations across generations, and between women and men. A parallel, but new, reconfiguring of social relations since the 1960s has been elaborated here as integral to recent changes in components of aggregate fertility, specifically the timing of family formation and the incidence of childlessness. This evidence has been advanced as part of a general argument that we can productively interrogate changes in fertility patterns, and broader demographic changes, through a consideration of changing reproductive regimes, and through a focus on shifting patterns of inter- dependence and obligation amongst different social groups.

I suggested earlier that we might take steps towards elucidating why diagnoses of individualisation can appear almost self evident, and yet offer a partial take on recent changes. We can find vital clues within the relational changes discussed through the paper. Much research in the area of gender has suggested a commodification of female labour, or a rationalisation of employment relations such that the prior, asymmetrical, standard family form collapses. In this perspective family ties become increasingly contingent, negotiated by social agents who have a freedom to choose which sets them apart from their forebears. I have argued that current developments are not adequately reflected in the concept of gender equalisation but rather manifest changes in gender relations and in gendered social positions and identities. Integral to these changes are the growing acknowledgement and importance of female claims to independence and autonomy, the growth in female participation and success in education, increasing participation in employment by women over the life course, and a growth in the importance of female income in family formation and in family resourcing more generally. These altered relations to work and family reproduction are crucial to theorising changes in fertility patterns. It may be that the increased (but still partial) realisation of claims by women to greater autonomy and independence in respect of forging integration into education and employment have encouraged pronouncements of individualisation yet this is a partial reading of the altered relative social positioning of women and men. The emergent configurations of gender relationships are as much characterised by inter-dependence and mutual claims and obligations as they were in the past, yet they have changed their form.

In respect of generations, changes reveal an alteration in their relative position, with young adults now typically partly dependent, and standardly resourced by their parents, for a longer period than ever before. In conjunction, there has been a stretching of the age profile of independent access to material resources, with a longer period taken now to graduate to the independence which standardly is deemed sufficient to commence family formation, at least at a level commensurate with contemporary aspirations (to a decent level of security and income and for many, now, to home ownership). These changes allow young adults to pursue more 'autonomous' paths through this extension of the life course period marked by the relative maturity and necessary social independence of youth and early adulthood and the general absence of familial obligations. Again it seems that a partial reading of this development might engender diagnoses of individualisation.

What is being read off, in diagnoses of individualisation, are emergent patterns of autonomy for different groups, yet these are borne not of individualisation but a shifting pattern of social claims, obligations and patterns of mutuality in social reproduction. It has been the argument of this paper that changes in patterns of fertility can be most usefully interrogated through exploring change in the relative positioning of, and relations between, different social groups in the resourcing and reproduction of social life.


1After Lesthaeghe and van de Kaa (1986) "Twee Demografische Transities" cited in Lesthaeghe 1998.

2Cliquet comments on how altruism is a cultural attribution regarding new attitudes to the quality of children at the turn of the twentieth century, when it was men who had expanding opportunities for self fulfilment. Now women are making progress in respect of self development the accent has shifted to individualisation, with its connotations of egocentricity (Cliquet 1991).

3The empirical data and related analyses throughout the paper are based on UK patterns unless elsewhere specified.

4The Total Period Fertility Rate (TPFR) is the aggregate of age specific birth rates across all fertile ages in the reference year and can be interpreted as the average number of children a woman would have if she experienced the age specific fertility rates of that year throughout her childbearing life.

5The fertility replacement rate is 2.1

6Interestingly, in Sweden, where declining fertility rates witnessed a recovery from the latter part of the 1980s, the evidence suggests this is largely due to a 'catching up' by older women, commencing families and spacing children closer to one another (Springfeldt 1991).

7 Figures from the 1970s and 1980s reveal that the earnings of women improved relative to those of men. This development reveals more than a one-off transition in the early 1970s, as this is sometimes attributed to the Equal Pay Act for example (Joshi 1990). A disaggregation by age groups reveals significant improvements in the earnings of women in their late teens and throughout their twenties, relative to age equivalent men, throughout the 1970s and 1980s (New Earnings Surveys). Prior to this an improvement in the earnings of both young women and young men in the early 1970s accelerated a general trend in place in the post war decades, of an improvement in the earnings of male youth relative to adult male workers. After the mid 1970s there was a decline in the earnings of young men relative to older workers (Irwin 1995). From the mid 1970s onwards there was an improvement in the earnings of women in their twenties relative to age equivalent men, and a decline in the earnings of men in their late teens and twenties relative to the earnings of men in the highest earning age group (Irwin 1995). I there develop in detail the argument that change in patterns of earnings, and claims on employment more widely, are best understood in relation to women's and men's claims and obligations in household resourcing and reproduction.


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