Running against the clock (RAC)?


Realising family plans over the life-course

Countries in Europe and around the world have witnessed a major family transformation in the past decades: Previously marginal forms of family structure such as stepfamilies and families with unmarried parents have become more common. In parallel, birth rates have fallen far below the replacement level of two children in many countries. In this context, the need to diagnose the mechanisms behind the very low fertility levels arises. Fertility intentions and the family context in which they are formed are an important key for understanding family formation. We identifed factors that drive family – and especially fertility – decisions in Austria and other European countries. Particularly, we contrasted fertility intentions with their realisation, focusing on couple characteristics, contraceptive use and partnership context.

The main research aim of the project is to investigate the influence of life course circumstances on the realisation of individuals’ fertility plans. In our framework, 1/ characteristics of the couple, 2/ contraceptive use and fecundity impairments and 3/ partnership status and changes in the life course are the three main dimensions that mediate the realisation of individual’s life-time and short-term fertility intentions. The third dimension allows the application of the framework to unpartnered persons and highlights the importance of having a partner for being able to conceive a child. Moreover, it enables us to study fertility intentions and their realisation in parallel with changes in one’s partnership situation. Taking a life course approach in fertility intentions studies is extremely relevant. Several studies have revealed that competing intentions in other life domains influence the realisation of short-term fertility intentions.

Project Summary:

When talking about “running against the clock” in the context of childbearing, postponing and delayed parenthood immediately come into the mind of the reader. These two features are central for the massive transformation of families in rich countries. In our project we studied the shift of motherhood to higher ages during the last four decades in Europe and other regions witnessing low fertility. More specifically, we mean the time span when women are 35+ years old, which is called “late fertility” among scientists: A relatively high share of women aged 35-44 who are childless or have one child still plan to have a(nother) child in the future. However, realisation within four years of such a wish turned out to be very unlikely at these ages. Also, initially strong intentions start changing massively to less certain intentions or to no further childbearing intentions when reaching the mid-30s. Moreover, success rates of assisted reproduction at advanced reproductive ages are low and contribute little to parenthood at later ages.

“Do you intend to have a child within the next three years?” This question was crucial in our project. We were interested in the question “Who realised this intention?”. Apart from the effect of the age of women, we wanted to learn more about couple context, influence of work or regional differences. We used data where individuals were interviewed twice, with three to four years distance in between, allowing to analyse what we call “realisation of short-term fertility intentions”. Results show that among couples, the division of work and the corresponding satisfaction with it plays a role for realising plans. Nevertheless, the number of children is also important in this context. We were also interested in the association with employment, the risk of job loss and eventually financial problems. Our results reveal that women with insecure jobs less often realize their wish for a (further) child. Among men, material insecurity (i.e. financial constraints) play a role when it comes to realising fertility plans with their partner.

Finally, we want to highlight our results on employment of mothers in Austria across the birth cohorts from 1940 to 1979. Although employment rates of mothers have increased across cohorts, the spread of part-time work has led to a declining work volume of mothers with young children. Return to the workplace is increasingly concentrated when the child is 3 to 5 years old. Part-time employment often remains a long-term arrangement: Many mothers do not expand their working hours to full-time even with their children growing up and needing less care. This should be viewed as a critical trend in the long run, as it has an impact on career prospects, pensions and implies a higher poverty risk for women.


Research within RAC


This project received funding from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF):
P 28071-G22.

Project Team

Isabella Buber-Ennser
(Project leader)

Eva Beaujouan

Caroline Berghammer

Zuzanna Brzozowska

 Rita Freitas

 Michaela Potančoková

 Bernhard Riederer

 Tomáš Sobotka

 Maria Rita Testa

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