Volume 27 - Article 11 | Pages 299–338  

Mortality decline and reproductive change during the Dutch demographic transition: Revisiting a traditional debate with new data

By Frans van Poppel, David Reher, Alberto Sanz-Gimeno, María Sanchez-Dominguez, Erik Beekink


Background: According to classic demographic transition theory, mortality change is the key factor that triggers a decline in fertility. Research on this topic has mostly relied on aggregate or time series data. Since fertility is based on the joint decisions of couples when confronted with specific fertility-childhood mortality outcomes, a focus on the experiences of individual couples is needed. Recently, Reher and Sanz-Gimeno used this approach to analyze individual longitudinal data for the Spanish town of Aranjuez.

Objective: We investigate whether, in a country and in populations characterized by varying cultural and socioeconomic circumstances, family organization, and demographic regimes, the same mechanisms influenced the process of fertility decline as in Spain.

Methods: The study uses micro longitudinal data from the Historical Sample of the Netherlands for a period stretching from the last quarter of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, and demographic measures identical to those used in the Spanish study to test whether the decline in fertility was triggered by the decline in mortality at the level of the family. As religious groups and social classes differed in their ability to correctly assess the implications of mortality levels, and in their willingness, readiness, and ability to react to these changes by adapting their reproductive behavior, we also compared the effect of mortality decline by the religion and the social class of the couples.

Results: We observed that childhood survival had clear effects on reproduction, the chances of having another child, and the length of the intervals between births, which indicates that this variable was crucial for fertility decisions. This pattern was especially strong after 1900. There were rather consistent and expected differences in the reactions to the survival of children by social class and religious group. Whereas skilled workers were rather sensitive to the number of surviving children, farm families were much less likely to allow their chance to have another child and the length of the intervals between births to be affected by the number of surviving children. Liberal Protestant couples differed sharply from Orthodox Protestant and Catholic couples in their reactions to the increase in the number of surviving children. In both the Netherlands and in Spain, the familial experience of childhood survival was central in determining reproductive strategies, although interesting differences can be seen.

Conclusions: Our findings on the large differences in the fertility reactions to (changing) mortality patterns strongly support the idea that there were multiple fertility declines, or a variety of paths to lower fertility. Basically, whether couples implement fertility strategies in reaction to the number of surviving offspring is determined by how people perceive their lives. The willingness and the ability to implement such a reproductive strategy stem from the ability of couples to think about long-term goals; their ability to perceive the way the survival or the death of their offspring affects family size and family well-being over the short, medium, and long term; and the degree to which they are willing to make decisions to achieve those long-term goals.

Author's Affiliation

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