Volume 36 - Article 14 | Pages 427–454

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

By John Casterline, Siqi Han

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Date received:11 Feb 2016
Date published:27 Jan 2017
Word count:7030
Keywords:cross-national study, fertility desires, non-Western societies, unrealized fertility


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

John Casterline - Ohio State University, United States of America [Email]
Siqi Han - Columbia University, United States of America [Email]

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» Gendered transitions to adulthood by college field of study in the United States
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» Migration and marriage: Modeling the joint process
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» Examining the predictive value of fertility preferences among Ghanaian women
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