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2011 Eurobarometer on Fertility and Social Climate – evidence on family sizes in Europe


A recently published report by Maria Rita Testa of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences) entitled “Family Sizes in Europe: Evidence from the 2011 Eurobarometer Survey”pdf reveals a discrepancy between the ideal and actual family size for Europeans in EU27. About 30% of European men and women age 40 or above in the EU27 stop their reproductive career before reaching the family size they consider to be ideal when asked in the survey. Over the last decade, preference for two-children families have slightly increased, and the ideal number of children for most Europeans remains high at about two. The report suggests that in the context of declining European fertility, high ideals leave room for policymakers to try and close the gap between ideal and actual family size.

Discrepancy between ideal and actual family size

On average, Europeans prefer smaller families. More than 50% of respondents to the Eurobarometer survey believed (EU27) that in general, the ideal family size consisted of two children, and affirmed that their personal ideal family size was two children. This trend has developed over the past years; the number of European men and women stating their preferred family size was two children in general grew from 52% in 2001 to 57% in 2011 in the EU15. Yet, 41% of those surveyed said their own ultimately intended family size would be two children.

The report finds that almost half of Europeans in the EU27 claim to have an actual family size that matches the ideal family size; 49% of women and 45% of men would have actually fulfilled their reproductive wishes. Yet, the data indicates that a 49% of men and 44% of women have an ideal family size which is higher than their actual family size, although there is variation between age-groups.

Another fact worth noting is that around age 40 (the point when family size should be near completion), a gap still exists between European men and women’s desired family size and their actual family size. About 30% of men and women would have liked to have more children, and the ideal versus actual family size gap is 0.4 on average for women and 0.5 for men.

Cross-country variation in Europe

Ideal and actual family sizes vary across gender, age and country, the Eurobarometer 2011 survey finds. Results indicate a gender discrepancy driven by the fact that women’s ideal family size is larger than men’s by up to 0.4 child. Also, the disparity between ideal and actual family size is larger for men compared to women.

Another important variation is the by-product of education levels. The report indicates that although Europeans with higher levels of education would like to have more children than those with medium and low education, they have fewer children in the end.

Cross-country, there is much diversity in the ideal family size and reproductive career patterns. The report highlights the variation in the mean ideal family size and mean actual family size across the 27 European states, and explores the cases of Austria and Greece in depth.

Austria stands out since respondents display “below replacement” family size ideals.  Around one in four women between the ages of 25 and 39 in Austria report an ideal family size of less than two children. The low average ideal family size in Austria can partly be accounted for by the high proportion of young people preferring families with less than two children compared to other European states.

The author points out that in Greece, a sharp decline in ideal family sizes has been observed across age groups between the 2006 and 2011 Eurobarometer survey results. By contrast, when similar trends were observed in other European states between 2006 and 2011, they only involved specific age groups.

Satisfaction and family size: a contradiction

On the whole, the European social climate is negative; this is translated by many respondents’ negative outlook on their country’s socio-economic future when interrogated in the Eurobarometer survey. The author reports that between 64% and 80% of respondents claim that the development of the socio-economic over the past five years has been negative on issues such as living costs, employment and the economic situation.

Yet, Europeans seem more positive about their own lives or their household’s financial situation than about the country’s future. The two groups with the most positive outlook on their situation and the socio-economic future of their country are respondents with no children on the one hand, and those who would like to have or have a family of three children of more. This finding seems contradictory and the report suggests it should be investigated more in depth.

The report concludes by arguing that there is still room for policy makers to close the gap between ideal and actual family size, and the report concludes by highlighting specific policy areas that policymakers should focus on. It recommends that the measures should target the sub-groups for whom the gap between ideal and actual family size is the biggest (usually citizens with higher levels of education). Since the ideal-actual gap is driven by important proportion of respondents have not yet started a family, it contends that “all measures which facilitate the transition to adulthood (finishing education, leaving the parental home, entering the labour market, etc.) might also help to close the ideal-actual gap”. The broader socio-economic situation may have caused in some countries like Greece an abrupt decline in ideal family-sizes, which means family-friendly policies would be particularly desirable at this time.