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  • There are several million extra French residents thanks to pronatal policies in force between 1920 and 2024. Tweet This
  • Pronatalism has worked where it has been seriously undertaken, and sources of demographic underperformance are readily identifiable in many countries. Tweet This
  • Most of the decline in fertility in Southern Europe can be directly attributed to decreasing exposure to marriage. Tweet This
Category: Fertility

Plummeting fertility rates in southern Europe have led governments across the region to begin considering pronatal policy. Italian Prime Minister Meloni recently spoke alongside Pope Francis about the importance of boosting Italian fertility, Spain’s fertility rate is at record lows, and even tiny Malta’s Parliament has called low birth rates an “existential challenge.” Most recently, France—which has historically experienced high birth rates—has begun to see declining fertility, leading French Premier Emmanuel Macron to call for “demographic rearmament.”

This new Institute for Family Studies report undertakes the task of assessing where fertility in southern Europe is headed, what factors are driving its decline, and whether anything can be done. In brief, we find that there are reasons for hope: pronatalism has worked where it has been seriously undertaken, and sources of demographic underperformance are readily identifiable in many countries.

That said, in this report, we do not attempt to provide a blueprint for pronatal policy, for the simple reason that no such blueprint will look the same in any two countries. Despite some broad similarities, the challenges facing Spain are not the same as those facing Italy, and similar headline fertility rates often mask quite large underlying differences. Policies implemented in one context cannot be expected to have the same effects in other contexts, where underlying economic structures and cultural norms may be different.

Key Findings:

  • Fertility rates within marriage remain fairly high in much of southern Europe, and only Spain has seen a major decline in married fertility in the last 40 years. However, marriage rates have fallen sharply in all countries. As a result, most of the decline in fertility can be directly attributed to decreasing exposure to marriage.
  • Differences in nonmarital fertility alone do not account for cross-national differences in overall fertility: high fertility societies have high rates of childbearing within marriage.
  • Fertility differences around Europe are not primarily due to differences in prevalence or sources of immigration, but rather to differences among native-born women in each country. For example, high immigration is not the source of France’s high fertility.
  • Desired family size is relatively low in southern Europe, perhaps due to adverse economic conditions leading young people to reduce their family ambitions. Examples of adverse economic conditions could include extended coresidence with parents, lack of independent household formation by young men, and low prevalence of stable, formal employment for young adults.
  • France’s pronatal policies undertaken between 1920 and 1950, and expanded in subsequent decades, have caused French fertility to remain durably elevated (0.1 to 0.3 more children per woman) throughout the last century. This has led to France’s population being several million people higher today than it otherwise would have been.
  • Because the exact dynamics of marriage, housing, and work vary considerably across countries, the best path forward for governments interested in pronatal policy is a harmonized multinational data collection effort entirely focused on assessing factors shaping fertility and marriage, similar to the country-specific surveys fielded in Spain and Portugal in the late 2010s.

Download the full IFS report here.