Bryan Caplan  

From the Cutting-Room Floor: Why Does Female Education Reduce Fertility?

Some Simple Analytics of Anti-... Structural Unemployment...
Education, especially female education, seems to reduce fertility.  Economists standard explanation is that women's foregone earnings are the leading cost of children.  If you raise women's education, you raise their potential income; and as you raise their potential income, you raise the cost of fertility.

This story sounds good, but economists rarely notice that there are several other plausible mechanisms for female education to reduce fertility:

1. Education changes values in an anti-natal direction.

2. Education correlates with stricter self-imposed rules for parenting.

3. Both education and fertility depend on foresight.

I addressed these stories in an earlier draft of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, but in the end the material seemed too wonky for public consumption.  But not for EconLog...

The Values Story

Now consider the greatest perceived triumph of Becker's approach: the fact that increasing education - especially women's education - explains much of the decline in fertility.  The facts are clear, but the best way to interpret the facts is not.  Education could affect fertility by making it more expensive to take time off from work.  Yet it could just as easily affect fertility by changing values. 

Teachers and professors often explicitly try to "broaden horizons" - to undermine students' preconceptions, and introduce them to less traditional measures of success.  In a sense, one of educators' goals is to convince students - especially female students - that there's more to life than having kids.  To some degree, educators succeed; they may be uninspiring speakers, but they do have captive audiences. 

The Self-Imposed Rules Story

Worth noting: Time diaries show that better-educated parents devote more time to childcare. (Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, p.75)  This suggests yet another way for education to reduce family size: Educated parents impose stricter rules on themselves.  Why does female education matter more?  Because women have stronger opinions about upbringing.  Dad usually gives Mom extra say on the family's self-imposed rules, as long as he's not in charge of compliance.  The best-educated moms keep their families small because the rules they choose to impose on themselves are especially tough to live by.

The Foresight Story

The foresight story suggests another reason why the well-educated have fewer kids: More educated people have more foresight.  Educational success, like sexual self-regulation, requires the sacrifice of short-run pleasures.  Would you rather study for a midterm, or go to a party?  So when the well-educated - especially well-educated women - feel tempted by unprotected sex, they are more likely to resist.

On the last point, of course, the book goes on to explain why a little extra foresight is a dangerous thing...

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (35 to date)
John Goes writes:

By my lights the Values story is a critical reason many women delay motherhood, I'd love to see evidence for or against this story. I wouldn't have removed it from the book.

Btw, Bryan, have you previously mentioned when the book will be published?

Steve Roth writes:

I just read this headline to my U Chicago daughter. She looked at me, perplexed, and asked, "does it hurt your ovaries?"

Troy Camplin writes:

Might be simple math. If a woman chooses to get more education, she will choose to put off having children because children demand a lot of one's time, and it is difficult at best to both raise children and study. My wife, who is now 34, didn't meet me until 5 years ago, after she had gotten her Master's degree and had worked for several years. I put off having a serious relationship until after I had gotten my Ph.D. We now have two children, but she is concerned about the problems that come about with age, so we aren't sure if we should have a third. If I had a good job (one good, well-paying job, not three low-paying jobs), we'd have the third one. Of course, highly educated people make those calculations. So rational choice also goes into it.

agnostic writes:

Female education has nothing to do with reduced fertility. The Demographic Transition began in late 18th C. France, and during the 19th C. in England. None of those women, especially the former, were attending K-12 schools and then college and perhaps advanced degree programs. They were not joining men in the labor market. They weren't voting.

If economists refuse to look at history and only run comparisons across space in the present (or very recent past), they'll continue to get things wrong.

There is a critical change in a third factor that occurred in late 18th C. France and 19th C. England. This is what truly caused the Demographic Transition. In today's world, traditional societies undergo lots of changes all at the same time, called "modernization" or "liberalization" or whatever.

Two of these changes are more education for females and reduced fertility, but that doesn't imply causation. Rather, a third factor from that panoply of changes is the cause of reduced fertility.

A separate line of evidence shows that education doesn't reduce fertility -- namely, that the Demographic Transition reduces fertility across education levels / social classes / IQ levels / etc. The effect may be stronger at the top than the bottom, but it's a second-order effect at best that exacerbates the existing reduction of fertility across the social strata.

agnostic writes:

BTW, I do want to commend Becker for introducing the "opportunity cost of children" idea into the discussion about the Demographic Transition. He's wrong about the particular source of rising costs (it's not education), but this is how you find the right answer.

A lot of the other talk about the D.T. denies that women have agency -- it's all about how men used to force their wives to have lots of kids and now they are less demanding, how women used to not have contraception and now they do (and so were forced by fate to have more kids against their desires in earlier times), bla bla bla.

Very little talks about women's own preferences and ability to control their reproductive outcomes in accord with those preferences. And as Pritchett documented, the source of differences across countries in realized fertility is women's desired fertility. That is, if women in society X want lots of kids (or few of them), then society X will have a high fertility rate (or a low one).

Jaap writes:

another cause for lower fertility is usually better healthcare/social security.
if kids are your pensionplan, you want enough of them to support you through old age.
if kids don't tend to survive into adulthood (so they can support you), then you want to have even more kids.
just look at charts of death-rates and birth-rates of most countries. the Middle-East seems to be an anomaly.

Tim Worstall writes:

I'm with agnostic but would go further.

Women are educated when there is a value to educating women. If women are spending their lives pumping out babies then there is no value to educating them (OK, a bit harsh).

Think of the Darwinian "meaning of life". To have grandchildren. In a society where one fifth of children don't reach 12 months, one quarter don't reach 5, the risk of death in childbirth is some 20% (over a lifetime) and there are huge variations in this (ie, 7, 8 kids might be needed, given famine, war, disease, plague etc to offer a reasonable chance of having grandchildren) then 7 or 8 kids will be the desired fertility.

But if a woman is going to spend 20 odd years podding and caring for kids, in a country with a lifespan of perhaps 40 on average, ie, total adult life is likely to be spent in the nursery, then why educate women? What's the value to it?

This changes when the number of children needed to have a good chance of having grandchildren falls. There will be lower desired fertility and thus there will be a value to educating women. Thus women get educated.

We've thus got causation backwards in hte standard story. It isn't that education reduces desired (and thus actual) fertility. It's that reduced fertility causes the education of women.

Steve Sailer writes:

The English practiced fairly late marriage for women -- e.g., 24-26 -- for most of 1200-1800. You could get married younger if you had a lot of money for your class. Ben Franklin pointed out in 1751 that Americans got married more and at younger ages because wages were higher and land cheaper in America than in Europe.

I suspect the French were ahead in contraception technology and practices, but I really haven't seen a good account of this.

floccina writes:

Are we sure that it is education that reduces fertility rather than IQ and or diligence or something else that correlates with education?

Steve Horwitz writes:

I think Tim W and agnostic have it right. The causality might well run the other way. Once economic changes (e.g. industrialization and the growth it generated) made kids more expensive, we see the demographic transition, which in turn opens up the possibility for women to acquire more education. Historically, the fall in fertility preceded the rise in education levels for women.

AnonyMouse writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

liberty writes:

As Troy points out above, much simpler story: no time.

Many well educated women, either through schooling alone (5 years PhD plus whatever else, and post-doc, or longer if MD) or through a combination of schooling and long work hours before or after schooling, because the education was for a *career* simply do not take the time to have children, sometimes until it's altogether too late, other times until it's too late to have more than one child. Or, she may have only one child because again, she has no time to care for more than one. But frequently it isn't intentional, she hopes to have children in a few years time - until her time runs out.

Robin Hanson writes:

I'm willing to believe that women have fewer kids because they want fewer kids, but really "modernization" is just renaming the question; it isn't an answer. WHY do women want fewer kids?!

Tucker writes:

"Now consider the greatest perceived triumph of Becker's approach: the fact that increasing education - especially women's education - explains much of the decline in fertility. The facts are clear, but the best way to interpret the facts is not. Education could affect fertility by making it more expensive to take time off from work. Yet it could just as easily affect fertility by changing values."

Hoyt Bleakley ( at the University of Chicago has done quite a bit of work in this area. Your interpretation of Becker's approach is really the simplest or the most basic one but far from complete. Once you go further into looking the fertility models that involve the interaction between quality and quantity of children - and notice that both quality and quantity have their own prices, you will noice that your points about value and self-imposed rules are not neglected.

Tom B writes:

"Female education has nothing to do with reduced fertility."

This may be true if you want to restrict your attention to only England and France. But the for the world as a whole, this is empirically false. There are already numerous episodes in history where exogenous increases in education (some sort of "natural experiment") caused an umambiguous fall in fertility in the absense of any structural transformation in the economy. Some of these analyses involve comparisons of cohorts. The education does not even have to be advanced college-level education - in some case, just few years of primary school sufficed.

One example, in the late 1970s, Nigeria introduced a free universal primary education program. For a few years in some states, education was free and this caused a massive enrollment of children, including girls. Due to budgetary problems, the program was ended a few years later. Empirical analysis has shown that the group of women who were exposed to program at the right time (school age) experienced a significant reduction in fertility compared to those women who were either too old or too young to be affected by the program. This is an example of a direct, causal effect of education on fertility.

See here:

Sarah writes:

I wonder if the way the standard educational pathway is structured is the most significant factor. Bachelor's degrees have been so devalued now that men and women need to get further degrees to distinguish themselves. The time it takes to get settled enough to have children seems to be taking longer and longer. I've read that what now constitutes an undergrad education used to be achieved at the high school level. So the education women used to receive in high school might be equivalent to what they learned in high school. This would mean the educational content has little to do with reduced fertility. I think it is more about the time that must be taken ~ 6 years or more out of high school to satisfy the over credentialing requirements of our economy.

Some women want fewer kids and others want kids but miss out due to the smaller window of opportunity due to education. I think some women recognize the increasing competitive nature of life and choose to have fewer kids in order to devote more resources and time to ensure the success of fewer children. Of course there are a multitude of reasons to choose to have fewer children.

conchis writes:

It seems like a simpler story could pretty easily explain this.

1. Men typically want more kids than women (at the margins we're discussing). I recall reading studies claiming to demonstrate this, but can't find the refs right now. In any event, this would be unsurprising given:
a. Having kids is a painful process.
b. Men don't bear much of this pain, and so don't take this into account in deciding how many kids they want.

2. Female education helps determine the the compromise reached between male and female fertility preferences:
a. Less educated women have less power in relationships, so the # kids ends up closer to the man's preferences than the woman's.
b. Educating women gives them greater power in the relationship (in part through the wage channel already mentioned in the traditional explanation), and increased awareness of and access to methods of controlling their fertility (contraception). Consequently, the number of children shifts more more towards the woman's preference.

Eva writes:

For my own part, as a child I was 100% certain I did not want children. People said I would grow out of it. I reached 20 and still did not want to have children. In my 20s, more and more people pressed me to have children. I still don't like children, but I will probably have two, if I want to find a husband.

Education, if anything, seems to push people towards a certain number (one or two or three), not just down. It pushed me up.

Doc Merlin writes:

Mormons and Hasidic jews have high education levels and very high fertility levels. This makes me think that it isn't directly female fertility levels, but something else related is.

JPIrving writes:

Come on guys this is simple.

Education is correlated with spinsterhood.

Education is most often done without children, and spans the prime years of a womans beauty. After women graduate, their sexual market value steadily drops before rounding to zero somewhere around...?

what's more, now the hypothetical subject faces a smaller and more demanding sector of the market due to the status a degree brings.

There are more examples, but you get the idea.

Pensans writes:

Education is not all the same.

Women today are taught that child rearing is low behavior. The content of education also should be considered in explaining reduced fertility.

If schools all taught that working as an engineer was low behavior, then there would be less engineering too.

It's feminist education -- not education simpliciter -- that has to be considered.

Henry writes:

Might said females being less attractive to men be partially responsible? Men are often insecure about having a more successful partner, so a less educated women has more dating options.

Nathan writes:

I've always chalked it up to signaling. Large families are associated with religiosity and are increasingly seen as anachronistic. A growing number of women would rather project a different image.

Laurel writes:

Too many people here are focusing on the wealthy-country cases. This includes everyone who's discussed the time required to get bachelor's or master's degrees, since female primary education appears to reduce fertility even when it happens before puberty.

As far as the actual explanation, conchis's story is well-accepted outside economics; if it's not accepted within economics I'm not sure I understand why. A woman who has significant income-generating prospects of her own has far more leverage in negotiations about child-bearing than a woman who is dependent on her husband for income. Education directly affects those prospects, and thus directly affects her leverage.

Mormons and Orthodox Jews, by the way, are red herrings: they're outlier populations self-selected for a particular set of values which include large families. Anyone who diverges very substantially from those values is likely to leave the LDS church or Orthodox Judaism, so it's unsurprising that they have atypically high fertility levels despite fairly high levels of female education.

Randall Parker writes:

I wonder if women developed new role models. See a post I did on TV and fertility in Brazil. TV delivered new role models. Women changed their reproductive behavior.

J. Daniel Wright writes:

Dr. Caplan:
Have you seen this comic?

I think it meshes well with your book.

Daniel DuPre writes:

Education does change fertility rates. When children are sent to school, they are taken out of the labor force, and are transformed from an economic asset (wage earners or unpaid labor) into an economic liability (they still need food, clothing, shelter). Good business managers (parents) try to minimize liabilities (less children) while insuring the long term viability of the enterprise (leaving an heir). From an economic point of view, the ideal number of children is 1, or for nervous types, 2.

kingsley writes:

In my opinion I think women education has nothing to do with that the issue is this.the economic situation as force many perent to reduce chilhood

Zach N. writes:

Hmm, I wonder how this theory holds up in relation to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: literacy (thus education?) is high in both territories, but fertility rates (especially in the Gaza Strip) are through the roof. Perhaps you can offer an explanation? Is it because women are marginalized in the Palestinian Territories (especially Gaza) and are thus disadvantaged economically?

Diana writes:

From Emma Goldman's autobiography, describing one of the experiences that made her a radical, i.e. working as a nurse/midwife in the tenements of 1900 NYC: "Still more impressed was I by the fierce, blind struggle of the women of the poor against frequent pregnancies. Most of them lived in continual dread of conception....each additional child was a curse, 'a curse of God,' as orthodox Jewish women and Irish Catholics repeatedly told me." "Living my life," p. 121 if the Penguin Classics edition.

Might I suggest a simple connection between women's education and the decline of fertility? Education gives a woman knowledge of modern contraception and knowledge of how to get access to it.

I would also like to point to the evidently economic connection between legalization of abortion and the swift decline in violent crime that seems to commence in the age cohorts born some 15 years thereafter.

Stephanie writes:

Zach: mere literacy does not correlate with being educated. If that were true, most 5th graders would be considered educated for the purposes of this study. The fact that Gaza Strip women are NOT educated explains why they have so many babies. Also, their children are more at risk due to all the terrorism there, so the parents want more kids as a safeguard.

Leonie writes:

A simplistic idea, but a woman has to do something to fill in the hours of life, and educated women have more choice about how to spend these hours. Those will less education have less choices in life.
A working lifestyle is not conducive to children, whereas a home based lifestyle is.
Despite the idea that women can "have it all", the fact is that there are only 24 hours in each day, and I for one could not look after my 4 children AND work as a full time teacher. There simply isn't enough time to do both jobs properly. So after several years of working, I now am at home with the kids. Over the next few years I will return to part time, then full time work. I have several friends who have not coped with full time parenting -too hard, too tiring, too boring- and rush back to work. This is why they don't have more children, they don't like the lifestyle, and they have the choice of doing something else.

v writes:

Maybe it's not "reduced fertility" where the old levels are the equilibrium, but maybe the ideal point is lower. So we were in a regime of "hyper-ferility" but with the addition of job opportunities, higher earnings, birth control, women have finally been able to bring fertility to a level they desire.

M writes:

Norway has has a growing population (one of the few developed countries with a high female working population that does). In that country mothers get a year of maternity leave and fathers get quite a bit for paternity leave. By making it easier financially to raise children, families are more likely to have more children.

egg cell donor writes:

It is not really a question of fertility. It is more of a freedom to choose among differing options now present for educated women.

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