Population, fertility and family dynamics | Prof. Jalovaara inaugural lecture, in English

Changes in fertility and mortality have profoundly changed lives for all humankind, and migration movements shape societies. Partnerships and families have also changed. Demographers study these population changes, as well as their causes and effects.

Marika Jalovaara, professor of sociology and demography, takes us through the topics of demography, and the changes in fertility and partnership dynamics.

Translation: Robert Stowe

The lecture can also be read on University of Turku’s web page, in Finnish.

Demography is a social science that studies changes in population and the differences in well-being and behaviour between population groups.

As demographers, we study the events of the human life course from birth to death. Our studies often pertain precisely to birth or death – or migration, geographic mobility, families, health or ageing. Our research often focuses on inequalities or the diversity of societies. We compare generations, time periods, genders, socioeconomic strata, those living in various family structures or persons with migrant backgrounds, or other demographic groups. We analyse the connections between components of demographic change. And, we study  the causes and effects of demographic change that might be social, societal, economic, environmental or biological.

Demography is a scientific discipline in its own right, yet it has strong ties with for example economics, epidemiology, geography and history. In Finland, demography is a field of specialisation within sociology and our demography is often very sociological.

The boundaries of demography are plastic but a good sign of demography is that it focuses on the components of population change. The Big Three of demography are births, deaths and migration. A demographer is often interested in how common these events or transitions  are and we use terms such as fertility and mortality to describe these changes.

Demographic changes shape populations: their size, structure and geographical distribution, and as such have a remarkable impact on societies and humanity as a whole. Fertility, mortality and migration also directly dictate population size. Finland’s population grows with each birth and immigration, but also shrinks with each death and emigration.

All the while, the structure of the population changes – e.g., the proportion of the older age groups is growing, so the population is aging. Our population is already old as it stands, there are only two countries in the world where the proportion of persons 65 years or older is higher than in Finland. And  fertility is low. For the seventh consecutive year deaths outnumber births. The population is increasing however, as there are more moving into the country than out of it. The proportion of the population with a foreign background is increasing.

Births, deaths and migration aside, other notable phenomena are changes in family relations and family structures.

The demographers of old made note of the marriage rate affecting fertility. About three centuries ago, young women in Western Europe began to marry at a slightly higher age and the proportion never marrying increased a little. Fertility decreased sharply.

Nowadays family demography studies a variety of topics, such as entry into adulthood, marriage and cohabitation and the transformation and diversity of life courses. The link to fertility remains important, but family relationships have other importance, for example their associations with well-being. Take for example those living with a partner having a tendency to be healthier and to live longer than those with no partner. This is only partly due to those already well-off being more likely to partner and to remain partnered.

Family experiences also impact child well-being. Children growing up with both of their original parents have better than average academic success, psychological well-being, health and later socioeconomic position than children growing up in other situations.

The significance of demography needs little defence: we study things that have forever changed humankind’s life.

In centuries past, both fertility and mortality were much higher. Bad crop years, epidemics and wars were noticeable as sharp increases in mortality, and fertility could collapse. The great famine in the 1860s was the latest famine-born demographic catastrophe in Finland.

The First demographic transition refers precisely to a change, in which mortality and fertility fall as society modernises. As in other countries, hygiene, health care and nourishment improved in Finland. People began to live longer. Adult mortality decreased, but the real success story is the shrinking of infant mortality. Still in the middle of the 18th century, about a quarter of all newborns died during their first year. Since then the average lifespan has doubled from 40 years to 80. This pivotal change in human life occurred in under 150 years.

What about fertility? Still in the dawn of the 20th century Finnish women gave birth to five children on average. During the last century fertility declined to near the population replacement level, which is when women bear an average of two children and the new generation numerically replaces the previous one.

An exception in the fertility decline is the birth of the Finnish baby boomers after the last wars, after which the decline continued.

After the beginning of the 1970s Finland’s fertility remained stable at around the replacement level for decades. This stability is characteristic of the Nordics, but is exceptional by European standards. Fertility levels sank in many European countries already in the 1970s. These drops were attributed especially to increases in women’s higher education and paid employment, but many societies provided only weak support for the reconciliation of work and family life.

The higher fertility levels in the Nordics were then explained by the welfare states supporting the combination of paid work and family, as well as supporting gender equality and families in their caregiving. It was assumed that fertility would remain high in these countries, and that if other countries would follow the Nordic’s example, they would see a fertility recovery.

But then something happened in the exemplary Nordic countries. The change was the most dramatic in Finland: since 2010 fertility has dipped strongly. No longer is this only a matter of postponing childbearing, and numbers of children ultimately born to women will also decrease notably. . In 2021 – last year – it seemed that fertility levels would finally begin to recover, but this year’s figures until now have once again shown a decrease.

The global fertility transition began already in the 1960s. Fertility levels in developed regions were already quite low – women bore about three children, from which the decline continued to less than two children. But now fertility has declined significantly all around the world.

The less developed world saw a sharp drop from six to three children per woman. The less developed countries began to join the world of low fertility. Already half the world’s population live in regions, where the fertility level is less than 2.5 children per woman. The world’s population continues to increase, but its relative growth has slowed down to only half of what it was 60 years ago.

The very least developed regions paint an even different picture from the previous. Development, modernisation and the increase of prosperity usually decrease fertility, but this association has been weaker in these areas than elsewhere. Fertility has not declined as quickly as development indicators would have it. I am mainly talking about sub-Saharan Africa.

Though, even in these countries fertility has declined – from near-seven children to four, which is in itself globally significant, and their fertility levels continue to decrease.

However, these countries’ population growth remains strong still, for now. Their population is expected to double in decades to come, and from then on to triple. This torque is brought about by the age structure, also called population momentum. The large young age groups bear children, which increases the number of children born, even though every individual woman has fewer children. The fertility decline will slow down population growth, but only with a delay.

Rapid population growth is a problem that further complicates the resolution of other serious problems, such as extreme and multidimensional poverty and deprivation. Global fertility has decreased already though, and many of us might still be alive, when the global population growth turns negative.

In much of the world the sustainability problem is of a different nature. People live long lives and the population no longer grows rapidly – there are many pros to these facts. However, when fertility is very low the population ages rapidly, and so the necessity to adjust to the change is real already from an economic sustainability standpoint.

Low fertility is also a problem for many an individual and couple. In Finland, people wish for more children than what they end up with. Ultimate childlessness is also at very high levels. Instability and social inequality are also concerns with the current family dynamic.

The family dynamics of wealthy societies have changed in other ways than fertility in half a century. Marriage tends to happen at a later age and fewer are even getting married. Cohabitation and having children in cohabiting unions have become more common. Unions are dissolved more often. Many enter into several coresidential partnerships during their lives, and many also have children with more than one partner.

This unity of changes in families is referred to as the second demographic transition. It has been explained by a shift in values and norms, wherein individual freedom of choice and self-actualisation become more pronounced and the meanings of traditional institutional control and authority in choices over a lifecourse begin to crumble. The Nordic countries were forerunners in the transformation of partnerships especially.

An often heard claim is of family life having diversified. However, different family structures and instabilities in life have existed before – e.g. widowed single parents, as well as high birthrates and child mortalities.

Family forms and individual life courses have, admittedly, gained a new diversity. This change reflects individuals’ greater freedom of choice, at least to an extent. There exist a variety of alternative paths to starting a family, and families come in various forms – and family formation is no longer taken for granted. There again, the majority of people still wish for long-term and intimate familial relationships and stable family life. The diversification of family life also has largely come to encompass instability and that aspirations regarding relationships, parenting and family often go unmet.

Socioeconomic differences also speak to this. In contemporary Finland, greater socioeconomic resources support family formation and family stability in all stages. The family formation of those with tertiary education is oftentimes successful in our society. Hindrances to family formation and instability accumulate to those men and women with less education. This is not a matter of a small marginalised group, as lifetime childlessness and partnership break ups are very common, as well as on the rise, among those with secondary education.

The effects between social standing and family dynamics go both ways: being well-off  increases one’s chances of family formation and adds to family stability and more often than not, having a family in itself increases a person’s resources. On the flipside: protective family ties are missing or most likely to tear among those who are already less fortunate. Therefore, family processes feed into social and economic inequalities in individual life courses.

The effects reach into future generations as well. Children of well-off parents are more likely to grow up with both parents, which on its own improves their prosperity and well being.

Such development trajectories are referred to as the accumulation of disadvantage across life courses and generations.

I have studied these subjects: families, partnerships and fertility, and their differing associations to inequality.

For an extended period I had the luxury of conducting family demographic research with academy-of-Finland grants, according to my own research passions and academic interests. As birth rates fell, policy makers and others caught wind of our research, which is also nice. Currently I am spearheading a strategic research consortium in a programme seeking sustainable solutions as the population structure is shifting. I am grateful for being afforded the chance to work on my subjects of choice in more, and less, strategic ways.