Volume 30 - Article 45 | Pages 1293–1326  

A life-course approach to fertility

By Johannes Huinink, Martin Kohli

This article is part of the Special Collection 16 "Theoretical Foundations of the Analysis of Fertility"


Background: The life-course approach as a methodological framework for the empirical analysis of longitudinal individual-level data has fundamentally changed the agenda of demographic research. However, these methodological innovations have not been paralleled by a similarly successful theoretical integration in the life-course field.

Objective: We aim to show that the life course is an indispensable framework for demographic research. Social forces, both structural and cultural, are articulated in the life-course dimension, and the individuals who act under their influence conceive of their actions in life-course terms. Thus, theories of fertility need to be set in these terms as well.

Results: In substantive terms, the life-course approach promises to integrate the extra- and intra-individual levels of relevant processes in a system of interdependent dynamics that unfolds over time; to conceptualize fertility and family formation as part of a multidimensional process of welfare production which requires complex decisions on the proper allocation of time and resources to the different life domains; to examine how cultural scripts and institutional programs shape and interact with intentions and preferences; and to highlight the impact of the past and anticipation of the future as a framework for the number, timing and spacing of births. In methodological terms, the life-course approach requires a shift in the efforts to identify complex causal mechanisms in empirical research.

Conclusions: Even though the life-course approach still lacks the status of a systematic theory, several hypotheses can already be drawn from it, which extend the scope of fertility research, and demonstrate it to be an indispensable framework for studying fertility decisions.

Author's Affiliation

Other articles by the same author/authors in Demographic Research

Explaining fertility: The potential for integrative approaches: Introduction to the Special Collection "Theoretical Foundations of the Analysis of Fertility"
Volume 33 - Article 4

Introduction to the special collection on spatial mobility, family dynamics, and gender relations
Volume 41 - Article 21

Running out of time? Understanding the consequences of the biological clock for the dynamics of fertility intentions and union formation
Volume 40 - Article 1

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