Are people who have no children richer

Abundance of Children - An Exception in Modern History?

Dr. Bernd Eggen / Dr. Marina Rupp

As in other European countries and North America, the decline in the birth rate in Germany is less the result of increasing childlessness, but essentially the result of a decline in families with many children, i.e. families with three or more children. In Germany, however, the number of large families is particularly low today. This is the result of the 7th Family Report for Germany, which was presented to the public in spring 2006.

However, anyone who discusses declining birth rates and the shortage of offspring today is perhaps all too easy to overlook that a higher proportion of large families in society has historically been an exception. Families in which three or more children lived at the same time were widespread in Germany between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. In this sense, having too many children is a social phenomenon of just 100 years.

Already 100 and 200 years ago there were families with many and with few children. The average values ​​often cover this. Even in earlier centuries, some parents tried successfully to limit the number of their children1. Nevertheless, in the old days, many children were part of normality. The farmer's wife in the Middle Ages had an average of five to six children2. In the late Middle Ages and early modern times before the 17th century, up to twenty births in marriage were not uncommon3. However, a distinction must be made between the number of births and the number of children. Many children were born, but a quarter to a third died before they came of age, often more. Poor hygiene, epidemics, wars, dirt and cramped apartments all contributed to a very high child mortality rate, so that in many families only one or two children survived. The family could hardly have raised much more. Constant dying shaped life in the family.

It can be assumed that in the early modern period, conscious birth control was not the dominant pattern and that most women gave birth as long as it was biologically possible. Nevertheless, the birth control is not an invention of the modern age. People have known about means and methods to prevent or terminate pregnancy at least since ancient times4.

In rural society, parents viewed their children primarily as workers and heirs. On the one hand, sufficient offspring was necessary and, given the very high mortality, they had to have enough children to ensure the continued existence of the family. On the other hand, the farming families did not have unlimited land, and the birth of a child posed fatal dangers for the mother's life and urgent food problems for the entire family. In this way it was to be avoided that the number of children who were fed or among whom the family property had to be divided up became too large. Similar economic requirements applied to the city's handicraft businesses: the respective trade, its mode of production, the presence or absence of home ownership could have a regulating effect on the number of children. So if you wanted to keep your family small, you found ways and means to make it happen. More or less effective methods of contraception have been used in Europe since the 16th century. This included abstaining from sexual intercourse altogether or extending breastfeeding time for born children. Other ways of limiting the number of children have been to abort, kill, or abandon unwanted children. For Chaunu, "the real contraceptive of classical Europe" was the age of marriage: In the past, as now, every year by which a marriage is postponed has a direct effect on the number of children5. However, with an average life expectancy of around 80 years, delaying marriage affects the number of children very differently than it did in a period between 1500 and 1700, when the mortality rate for women between the ages of 18 and 45 was significantly higher.

Today there will always be enough years to start a family with two or more children. But in the old days more than half of the newborn girls were in danger of not reaching the age of marriage, and those who did reach it could expect only a limited length of their married life. Under these circumstances, it was difficult to have more children at all.

Parents who consciously restricted the number of children in marriage did not usually come from poor backgrounds - on the contrary: In Western Europe, the wealthy bourgeoisie and the English and French aristocracy in particular proved to be pioneers of conscious birth control. In his case study of selected Zurich families in the 17th and 18th centuries, Pfister reports that in the upper class, many women no longer exhausted their fertile phase to the full if they already had two living sons beyond early childhood, which is particularly threatened by death6. After all, it was important to preserve the most extensive legacy possible for the existing children in order to secure the family's social status over the generations.

Family planning for the early modern period could also be demonstrated for other social groups, namely in some French villages or in Catholic Bavaria as well as in rural regions with a Protestant population. Nevertheless, overall only a few married couples are likely to have restricted their births. The size and structure of the population have not been significantly influenced by this. This would not begin until half a century later. Around the middle of the 18th century, the fertility rate first fell noticeably in France. Germany and other European countries such as England, Sweden, but also Italy followed at a distance of 100 years, around 1870 (i point)7.

In the 19th century, the birth restriction in marriage gradually established itself as a rule of law. A constant of the old days was that whoever was allowed and could get married also had children. After marriage had become generally accessible, the individual ideas and living conditions of the parents increasingly determined the number of their children. The transition took place slowly and unevenly against the background of changing social conditions:

  • The legal system freed marriage from old peasant and guild restrictions and released it.
  • The economic development created jobs and prosperity.
  • Industrialization made income possible beyond the old unity of business and house.

This created the prerequisites for starting a family in broad sections of the population, and there was more and, above all, early marriage. The births became less dependent on food margins and rose slightly. With a time lag, the mortality rate fell, especially among small children and adolescents. More and more children lived and survived in more and more families. As a result, the population in the German states grew rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. However, this development was anything but uniform: In Prussia the population increased significantly, in the Austrian Alpine countries it stagnated, and the growth rates in between, for example, in north-west and south Germany. Population growth was highest where marriage was brokered and where it was possible to get married when the marriage age was low8.

The breakthrough in modern family planning in the German states came at the end of the 19th century. But this was not immediately observable, as the population continued to grow - because the absolute birth rate remained relatively high - while the mortality rate now fell more sharply. This initially concealed a development of epoch-making importance, the decline in births in marriage, i.e. the limitation of the number of children by the spouse. The total fertility rate began to decline, although the marriage frequency rose somewhat and the age at marriage fell slightly. The decline began first among older women and later births: among 40 to 46 year olds, the numbers fell by 25% between 1881/90 and 1901/10, and among 30 to 34 year olds by 15%. In Berlin, the number of first births increased between 1880 and 1900, but the number of second births decreased by 20%, third births by 45% and the number of further births by almost 60%. In other words: the parents of our grandparents already had considerably fewer children on average than their parents9.

The development shows great regional, denominational and class-specific differences, although the connection between prosperity, level of education and birth control in the urban population is undisputed10. The national average in Germany began to decline around 1895, but in individual regions it began around 1880 or only around 1915. First, the numbers fell in the cities, while they rose in the countryside. The decline was greater in service and administrative cities than in cities with heavy industry. Even before the general national decline, the regions differed drastically in the number of children: married women had between 4.4 and 8.4 children. In areas with high numbers of children, the decline began later and with less intensity.

In view of denominational differences, Catholics often had an above-average number of children. They also began to reduce the number of their children late, for example in Lower Bavaria in 1914, and more slowly. In Protestant marriages, which earlier had fewer children, the number of children was limited more and more effectively, regardless of urban or rural origin11. In the Jewish families, especially in good social positions, the decline began particularly early and developed particularly quickly.

Although modern and traditional family types coexisted, it is clear that the modern family asserted itself at different speeds in all social classes. Well educated and wealthy parents began reducing the number of their children sooner than parents in economic distress. The bourgeois family living in the city was a pioneer in this development. This included the new middle class, civil servants, liberal professions, white-collar workers. The independent entrepreneurs, the old middle class and the skilled workers followed. Skilled workers outside of heavy industry and especially mining limited the number of their children earlier than unskilled workers. The "respectable" workforce, guided by the bourgeois family ideal, no longer viewed children as fate and paid more attention to the individual child. The working class family in general, however, continued to draw its normative orientations from traditional ideas of morality and order. Limiting the number of children was out of the question as long as children were also additional earners. For them, family primarily meant living and dining together in an extremely hard life; there was hardly any talk of upbringing, education and training for children. It was only when child labor was abolished that »children's blessings« were anything but desirable, as children only meant an additional cost factor that increased the misery of the family. The working class was therefore anything but uniform in its generative behavior.

In Germany, civil servants and employees in particular restricted the number of their children early on, albeit slowly at first. The number in marriages entered into before 1825 was 6.4, in those before 1849 it was 5.1, in those before 1874 it was 4.3. Entrepreneurs and craftsmen followed the trend every 25 years. In Göttingen, for example, the average number of children in the craftsman families between 1760 and 1860 is said to have been two to three children. There was a slower decline among farmers: between 1750 and 1799 fertility was 7.1 children, fell to 6.3 between 1800 and 1849 and reached 5.5 births per marriage between 1850 and 187412.

The development accelerated towards the end of the century, but remained differentiated: in the case of senior civil servants, teachers and freelance workers, marriages concluded between 1875 and 1899 had an average of three children, but marriages concluded between 1900 and 1914, only 2.5 children left. Urban workers' marriages, on the other hand, still had an average of 4.4 children in 1939. In the same period, farm workers with 6.1 children per marriage clearly outnumbered self-employed farmers with 5.4 children. Much earlier and much more advanced, in France, even in the country, parents restricted the number of their children. In 1911 women farmers in Gironde or the Bordeaux region had an average of 1.93 and 1.86 children respectively, and in Paris the values ​​were even lower at 1.72 children per marriage13.

When it comes to developing into smaller families with one or two children, Germany is no exception. Worldwide, the proportion of families with many children is likely to have decreased in the last few decades. A first rough indicator is the declining total birth rate in almost all countries14. If one also takes into account the decline in child mortality in developing countries, then a decline in the birth rate does not necessarily have to result in a lower proportion of families with three or more children. As more children survive, fewer births are necessary for a large family. However, especially in Asia, the decline in births is so strong that it is likely to have led to a corresponding decline in families with many children. The significant decline in Asia can be observed in China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam in particular. At the beginning of the 1970s, a woman in these countries had an average of four to seven children; three decades later, the corresponding number is often only one child and rarely more than two children. The North African states of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, for example, as well as Iran, have developed in a similar manner. The number of children per woman has fallen from six to seven children to two to three children15. In the developed countries, too, the number of children in families, which was already lower decades ago, has fallen significantly again. In Europe and Japan, women born in 1930 have an average of two to three children, and in North America, Australia and New Zealand three to four children. Today's generation of parents, the 40- to 45-year-old mothers, usually only have one or two children.

The development of the total birth rate of women between the ages of 18 and 45, as well as the final number of children of women in a given year of birth only imprecisely reflect the actual decline in families with multiple children16. This is shown by the development in France: the final number of children for women born in 1960, at 2.1, was the same as for women born in 190017. At first glance, it is surprising that the proportion of families with three or more children is almost unchanged, and even among women born in 1960 was one percentage point higher than among women born in 1900. However, younger women seldom have five or more children and more often three children. The final number of children has been stabilized mainly by the fact that women are less likely to remain childless or have only one child. The change in family size is much more dramatic from the children's point of view. If only families come into focus, then in France five out of ten children born to mothers born in 1900 and 1930 had at least three siblings. So on average four to five children lived in the family.

In contrast, the children whose mothers were born in 1960 lived together with far fewer brothers and sisters: two out of ten children still had three or more siblings. The development towards a brother or sister or two siblings, i.e. a family with two or three children, is also striking.

In Austria, the proportion of women with three or more children fell to less than half during the observation period: it fell from 42% for women born in 1935 to around 20% for women born in 196418. In comparison, childlessness increased gradually in younger women, then rose to around 18% in women born in 1964. The proportion of women with only one child has been largely stable since the 1940 cohort. Something different has changed after the U.S. Census Bureau changed family size in the US. Six out of ten women born in the 1930s had at least three children; two out of ten women have five or more children. Younger women born around 1960 are considerably less likely to be the mothers of a large number of children: only three out of ten women have at least three children, and one in ten women have four or more children.

In Germany, the decline in the final number of children among women with a date of birth has largely taken place around the turn of the last century19. Since then, women in Germany rarely have more than one or two children on average. Of the women born between 1956 and 1960, 25% are childless and only 15% have more than two children. The lowest number of children so far for a West German cohort is estimated at 144 children per 100 women for women born in 1968. For the women born afterwards (1969, 1970) with 146 and 147 children, slightly higher fertility rates are expected20. It remains to be seen whether this slight increase heralds a turnaround.

The size of the family declined especially in the first half of the 20th century. 80 years ago, 21% of married couples with children had at least four children and a further 17% had three children. Three decades later, only 8% of married parents in the former federal territory had four or more children and 14% had three children. Once again, the proportion of married couples with many children has fallen noticeably since the 1970s. In 2005 there were only three or more children in every seventh family.

If, in addition to married couples with children, we also consider single parents and illegitimate couples with children, the decline in families with four or more children with many children has been particularly striking since 1957. Their share of all families has fallen by more than half, the share of families with three children by just over a quarter. In addition, the decline came to a standstill in the mid-1980s. For 20 years now, the proportion of large families in all families has remained largely unchanged at around 13% (formerly Germany) and 12% (Germany since 1991). The decisive changes in generative behavior were therefore decades ago. This also applies to Baden-Württemberg, where the proportion of large families fell from 24% (1970) to 15% (2005). However, today Baden-Württemberg is the state with the highest proportion of large families.

In the early modern period fertility and mortality were high, many children were born, very few children survived the 10th or 15th year of life; but many mothers also died early. Hardly more than two, perhaps three children are likely to have lived in the families at the same time. The phase of declining mortality began in the first half of the 19th century, and fertility barely changed at first. Many children were born, more children survived, and their parents lived longer too. The families got bigger, more families had three or more children. In the German-speaking countries, but also in the rest of Europe, the population increased explosively. Today and for decades, fertility and mortality are low. Few children are born, almost all of them survive their childhood and adolescence. Roughly speaking, large families were widespread in Germany in the period between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century. In this sense, having too many children is a social phenomenon of just 100 years.

And tomorrow? A first answer might be a look at the families in Germany and Baden-Wuerttemberg who today still have an above-average number of children. Three types can be identified (i point).

  • Families with average to very good economic resources, in which both parents mostly have a higher education and vocational qualification. Often they come from a large family themselves, they are more religious and live more in the country than in the big city.
  • Families that are almost the opposite of the first type: They live in precarious economic conditions, which is mainly due to inadequate or missing school and professional training of their parents.
  • Families with a migration background and with a strong focus on religion and family of origin.

What these three types have in common is mostly a traditional distribution of tasks: the woman is responsible for the household and children, the man for work and income. It is questionable whether having a large number of children, if it is linked to such a family model, will become more common again in the future. In other, especially northern European countries, parents are more likely to have three or more children than in Germany21. These are states that are characterized by political measures that increase the spread of state-funded childcare facilities and the participation of women and men in education and the labor market. The goal of these measures is not the family, but the individual - regardless of gender. Risks associated with starting a family are covered by other areas of society. As a result, women and men are more independent from the family. At the same time, the decision to have children is made easier, precisely because the responsibility is easier to bear. It may sound paradoxical, but the more independent women and men are in their life plans from the family institution, the lower the opportunity costs22 For example, when it comes to participation in education and the labor market, the more likely they are to be willing to start a large family and thus to bond with the family in the long term.

1 Pfister, Ulrich: Population history and historical demography 1500–1800. Munich 1994.

2 Russel, Josiah C .: The population of Europe 500–1500, in: Borchardt, Knut (Ed.): European economic history. Volume 1: Middle Ages. NewYork / Stuttgart 1983, p. 13 ff.

3 Weber-Kellermann, Ingeborg: The family. Frankfurt / Main 1996, p. 32.

4 Mackenroth, Gerhard: Population theory. Berlin 1953.

5 Chaunu, Pierre: La civilization de l’Europe classique. Paris 1966, p. 204.

6 Pfister, Ulrich: The Beginnings of Birth Control in Europe: A Case Study of Selected Zurich Families in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Bern 1985.

7 pounds, Norman J.G .: An historical geography of Europe 1800-1914. Cambridge 1985.

8 Nipperdey, Thomas: German History 1866–1918. Volume 1: The world of work and civic spirit. Munich 1993, p. 9 ff. (Citation: Nipperdey, T .: Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918).

9 Nipperdey, T .: German History 1866–1918, p. 23.

10 Perrot, Michelle: History of Private Life. Volume 4: From Revolution to Great War. Frankfurt / Main 1992, pp. 154 ff. And Nipperdey, T .: Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918, pp. 25.ff.

11 Nevertheless, there were regional differences. For example, predominantly Protestant areas in what is now Baden-Württemberg had a fertility that was significantly above average until the 1980s.

12 Nipperdey, T .: German History 1800–1866. Munich 1993, p. 109 and Sieder, Reinhard: Social history of the family. Frankfurt 1987, p. 110.

13 Gestrich, Andreas / Krause, Jens-Uwe / Mitterauer, Michael: Family history. Stuttgart 2003, p. 516 ff.

14 The indicator is the total birth rate of women between the ages of 15 and 45 in a calendar year. Population science also speaks of period fertility, Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat: World population prospects: The 2004 revision. Highlights. New York 2005.

15 In all Arab countries there is evidently already more or less the desire and the possibility to keep one's family small; Burguière, André / Klapisch-Zuber, Christian / Segalen, Martine / Zonaben, Francoise (ed.): History of the family. Volume 3. Modern times. Frankfurt / Main 1997, p. 463 and Abbasi-Shavazi, Mohammad J .: The fertility revolution in Iran, in: Population et Sociétés 373/2001.

16 Population science also describes the final number of children of women in a given cohort as cohort fertility.

17 Toulemon, Laurent: How many children and how many siblings in France in the last century ?, in: Population et Sociétés 374/2001.

18 Sobotka, Tomáš: Fertility in Austria: An overview, in: Vienna Yearbook of Population Research 2005, Wien 2005, p. 243 ff.

19 Schwarz, Karl: 100 years of birth development, in: Zeitschrift für Bevölkerungswissenschaft 4/1997, p. 481 ff., Council of Europe: Recent demographic developments in Europe 2004. Strasbourg 2005.

20 20 Dorbritz, Jürgen: Birth trends in Germany. Only tempo effects, but no baby boom, in: BIB-Mitteilungen 2/2004, p. 10 ff.

21 See Eggen, Bernd / Rupp, Marina (2006): Kinderreich Familien, Wiesbaden.

22 Job interruption opportunity costs include, but are not limited to: lost wage income, loss of human capital, and loss of career opportunities.

In France, numerous contemporary witnesses felt concerned about the falling birth rate, especially from the second half of the 18th century. The reasons they suspected for limiting the number of children seem to have changed little in the past two and a half centuries. The French historian Fernand Braudel lets some of these economists, clergymen and "demographers" have their say:

The economist Ange Goudar (1756) blamed the luxury of the times for the fact that »the marital union by no means results in fertility: one shies away from it and works directly or indirectly to inhibit its course (…) luxury allows abundance of children to the eyes of most as a kind of disgrace. The wealthier one is, the stronger is his urge to limit his offspring «. Worst of all, however, is that "the contagion (through luxury) is spreading and imperceptibly seizing the lower folk, on whose work the whole building of civil government rests."

In 1758 the southern French clergyman Jean Novi de Caveirac spoke of those men who "without regret renounce the delicious name of father", "some by curbing their desires, others by deceiving nature".

In 1763, Turmeau de la Morandière, a "hobby demographer," refers to the progress of contraceptive practices: the married couples only wanted one child or none at all. This desecration of the sacrament of marriage, "this shameful stinginess has spread like an epidemic," and, as the confessors confirmed, it spreads across all social classes, rich and poor.

One of the first French demographers Jean-Baptiste Moheau said in 1778: “It is not only the rich women (...) who regard the reproduction of the species as a hoax that fools used to get involved in; these pernicious secrets, which no living being but humans know ... have already reached the countryside; even in the villages they deceive nature «.

In Normandy in 1782, according to Father Féline, “the crime of the shameful Onan (...) was tremendously widespread among married couples (...) in particular if they do not want a large crowd of children, but nevertheless enjoy the pleasure they feel when they are married, May not fail, this unfortunate tendency is common among the rich and poor. Their motives differ, their crime is the same «.

In 1788, the political arithmeticist Louis Messance condemned “the calculation that causes man to want only one or two children; the false refinement that drives him (...) to hold a large number of domestics and to entertain a large number of guests at his table instead of gathering his children around him; and, the height of depravity, to wipe out one's seed while sowing '.

A good 100 years later, the decline in the birth rate in Germany sparked a broad debate there too:

At the end of the 1880s, the statistician Georg Hansen claimed that the urban population and, above all, the middle-class family with good genetic makeup could not reproduce themselves. The social Darwinist Otto Ammon tightened the thesis: urban immigrants are of a better race, but in the city they degenerate and die out. The socio-biological interpretation saw the cause of the decline in the birth rate in the big city. The city consumes more people than it produces. Berlin was a typical case for statistician Georg Mayer or economist Adolf Weber. For conservative-minded people, and Catholics even, birth control as the separation of sexuality and procreation was an expression of rationalistic-individualistic emancipation, a violation of natural conditions. For the nationalists it was - one had the warning example of France in mind - a loss of "people's strength", the threat of a "dying people." For the "racial hygienists" and eugenicists it was about the general deterioration of the genetic makeup, because it was the carriers of better hereditary dispositions who practiced responsible parenting, while the less valuable increased disproportionately.1

1 Braudel, Fernand: France. Volume 2: People and Things. Stuttgart 1990, p. 181 ff .; Nipperdey, Thomas: German History 1866-1918. Volume 1: The world of work and civic spirit. Munich 1993, p. 27 ff.

If one considers all parents living together, 16% of them in Baden-Württemberg and 13% in Germany in total have many children. However, there are parents who have three or more children more than the average. In Baden-Württemberg, 28% of parents with a low level of schooling and low income have many children.

Parents living togetherProportion of large families
a total of1613
with low schooling and low income(28)125
with higher education and higher income2719
with migration background2525
Large families
Three or more children of no age live in the family.
Low school education
Both partners do not have a school qualification or only one partner does not have a school qualification, the other partner secondary school.
higher School education
Both partners technical / university entrance qualification (Abitur).
Low income
Less than 60% of the average monthly net family income (median): Baden-Württemberg 1,764 euros, Germany 1,596 euros.
Higher income
More than 100% of the average monthly net family income (median): Baden-Württemberg 5,878 euros, Germany 5,318 euros.
Migration background
Both parents are foreign nationals.