Volume 36 - Article 14 | Pages 427–454  

Unrealized fertility: Fertility desires at the end of the reproductive career

By John Casterline, Siqi Han


Background: ‘Unrealized fertility’ is a failure to achieve desired fertility. Unrealized fertility has been examined in low-fertility societies but, with the exception of research on infertility, has been neglected in research on non-Western societies.

Objective: We conduct a multicountry investigation of one form of unrealized fertility, namely a reproductive career which ends with the woman desiring further children.

Methods: We analyze 295,854 women aged 44‒48 in 252 surveys (DHS, RHS, PAP) conducted in the period 1986–2015 in 78 countries. Two indicators of unrealized fertility are constructed: (i) a comparison of ideal versus actual number of children; (ii) the desire for another child. We estimate multilevel regressions with covariates at individual and aggregate levels.

Results: Unrealized fertility is far more prevalent according to the first indicator than the second. It is more common among women with fewer living children and women whose first birth occurs after age 20, and it is distinctly higher in sub-Saharan Africa and lower in South Asia. The evidence on trend over the course of fertility transition is mixed: for the second indicator but not the first, the net effect is a reduction in the prevalence of unrealized fertility as fertility declines.

Conclusions: Unrealized fertility occurs frequently in most societies and therefore deserves more rigorous research, especially on its consequences for emotional, social, economic, and demographic outcomes.

Contribution: We provide the first comprehensive documentation of the prevalence of unrealized fertility across a broad set of contemporary non-Western societies.

Author's Affiliation

Other articles by the same author/authors in Demographic Research

Extramarital fertility in low- and middle-income countries
Volume 47 - Article 3

Gendered transitions to adulthood by college field of study in the United States
Volume 35 - Article 31

Migration and marriage: Modeling the joint process
Volume 30 - Article 47

Examining the predictive value of fertility preferences among Ghanaian women
Volume 22 - Article 30

Most recent similar articles in Demographic Research

Pathways and obstacles to parenthood among women in same-sex couples in Spain
Volume 50 - Article 35    | Keywords: assisted reproduction, family, fertility desires, LGBTQ, parenthood, same-sex couples

Calculating contraceptive prevalence and unmet need for family planning in low-fertility countries with the Generations and Gender Survey
Volume 49 - Article 21    | Keywords: cross-national study, Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Europe, family planning, Fertility and Family Survey (FFS), Generations and Gender Survey (GGS), longitudinal data, panel data, unplanned births, World Fertility Survey

Accuracy of wives' proxy reports of husbands' fertility preferences in sub-Saharan Africa
Volume 46 - Article 17    | Keywords: couples, Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), family planning, fertility, fertility desires, spousal relationships, sub-Saharan Africa

Three facets of planning and postponement of parenthood in the Netherlands
Volume 43 - Article 23    | Keywords: age at first birth, fertility, fertility desires, Netherlands, postponement

Educational reproduction in Europe: A descriptive account
Volume 41 - Article 49    | Keywords: cross-national study, education, intergenerational, intergenerational transmission, reproduction