French Fertility Fall

Why do we have fewer kids today, even though we are rich? In ancient societies, richer folks usually had more kids than poorer folks. Important clues should be found in the first place where fertility fell lots, France from 1750 to 1850. The fall in fertility seems unrelated to contraception and the fall in infant mortality. England at the time was richer, less agrarian and more urban, yet its fertility didn’t decline until a century later. The French were mostly rural, their farming was primitive, and they had high food prices.

A new history paper offers new clues about this early rural French decline. Within that region, the villages where fertility fell first tended to have less wealth inequality, less correlation of wealth across generations, and wealth more in the form of property relative to cash. Fertility fell first among the rich, and only in those villages; in other villages richer folks still had more kids. The French revolution aided this process by reducing wealth inequality and increasing social mobility.

It seems that in some poor rural French villages, increasing social mobility went with a revolution-aided cultural change in the status game, encouraging families to focus their social ambitions on raising a fewer higher quality kids. High status folks focused their resources on fewer kids, and your kids had a big chance to grow up high status too if only you would also focus your energies on a few of them.

It seems to me this roughly fits with the fertility hypothesis I put forward. See also my many posts on fertility. Here are many quotes from that history paper:

This analysis links fertility life histories to wealth at death data for four rural villages in France, 1750–1850. … Where fertility is declining, wealth is a powerful predictor of smaller family size. … [and] economic inequality is lower than where fertility is high. … The major difference in the wealth–fertility relationship at the individual level. Where fertility is high and non-declining, this relationship is positive. Where fertility is declining, this relationship is negative. It is the richest terciles who reduce their fertility first. … Social mobility, as proxied by the level of inequality in the villages and the perseverance of wealth within families, is associated with fertility decline. …

The exceptional fertility decline of France is a … spectacular break from the past has never been satisfactorily explained. … The decline of marital fertility during the late nineteenth century was almost completely unrelated to infant mortality decline. … Time was the best indicator for the onset of sustained fertility decline: excluding France, 59 per cent of the provinces of Europe began their fertility transition during the decades of 1890–1920. …

Any socio-economic explanation for early French fertility decline must consider that England, with a higher level of GDP per capita, a smaller agrarian sector, and a larger urbanization rate, lagged behind French fertility trends by over 100 years. … almost 80 per cent of the French population were rural, and nearly 70 per cent lived off farming at the time of the decline. … ‘farming remained primitive’ and that there were numerous indicators of overpopulation (such as increases in wheat prices from the 1760s to the 1820s). … It is widely accepted that many localities began their fertility transition long before [the Revolution of] 1789. …

Weir … states ‘evidence on fertility by social class is scarce, but tends to support the idea that fertility control was adopted by an ascendant “bourgeois” class of (often small) landowners’. … Children became ‘superfluous as labourers and costly as consumers’. The decline of fertility in France in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century was primarily due [he said] to the decline of the demand for children by this new class. … The results of this analysis support Weir’s hypothesis. … Compared to cash wealth alone, property wealth is a better predictor of the total negative wealth effect in the decline villages. …

The old social stratifications under the Ancien Régime, where hereditary rights had determined social status, were weakened by the Revolution. All of this served to facilitate individuals’ social ambition, and the limitation of family size was a tool in achieving upward social mobility. … For the villages where fertility is declining, the Gini coefficient is significantly lower than where it is not. …

Where the environment for social mobility is more open, father’s wealth should have less importance in the determination of son’s wealth than would be the case where social mobility is limited. … Where fertility is high and not declining, father’s wealth is a highly significant predictor of son’s wealth.This relationship appears to be far weaker where fertility is declining. …

Wrigley’s proposition of a neo-Malthusian response cannot be valid as it was the richest terciles who reduced their fertility, and Weir’s explanation, again, does not uniquely identify France. What was unique to France was the pattern of landholding and relatively low level of economic inequality.

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  • Doug

    Two factors strike me as highly important that don’t seem covered in the paper:

    1) Primogeniture vs. equal inheritance. If only the oldest son inherits the bulk of the property than the legacy of the house can be preserved even with a lot of children. In contrast if legal or social rules promote fairly dividing the inheritance than high fertility will quickly ruin a house.

    2) Rights of illegitimate children: Fathering bastards seems like a common way that rich and high status men in medieval Europe achieved high fertility rates. As women gain social status the cost of bastards is higher.

    • Wonks Anonymous

      Greg Clark reports an extremely low English illegitimacy rate in “A Farewell to Alms”.

  • theakinet

    “It seems to me this roughly fits with the fertility hypothesis I put forward.”

    But the problem with your hypothesis about women is that men don’t care about stuff like a woman’s education, or job*. We care about “hotness.” And that trait peaks in the High School/College years. So that’s when women should try to lock down a mate. The Mormons are right.

    *Unless a woman makes more money, then we care about her job and don’t give the relationship our all, because it’s embarrassing, as a man, to be out-earned by your mate.

    • IMASBA

      “But the problem with your hypothesis about women is that men don’t care about stuff like a woman’s education, or job*. We care about “hotness.”

      Have you ever had a multi-year relationship with a woman? There are a lot of things besides “hotness” that start to count after a while, even as far as back as the Roman Empire the women of the elite were educated so as not to bore their future husbands.

  • Noumenon72

    I simply don’t understand what this paper is trying to say, despite Robin’s summary. The last line here says the landholding pattern is crucial, but the excerpt doesn’t say which kind of landholding goes with low fertility or why. The same with correlation of wealth across generations, which way does it send fertility and why?


    “High status folks focused their resources on fewer kids, and your kids had a big chance to grow up high status too if only you would also focus your energies on a few of them.”

    Yes, but this is no secret: people from third world countries will sometimes flat out say they have a lot of children to make sure there’d be someone to look after them in old age. With inceased income equality and social mobility fewer children are needed to look after two parents. I’ve also heard third world women say they’d rather have gotten less children but their husbands forced them to have lots for religious reasons.

    So the reasons for lower fertility are this:

    1) less children needed for old-age security (this factor is increased by the existence of pension systems)

    2) loosening up/disappearing of religious pressures to “go forth and multiply” and religious rules against the use of contraception (Iran is a good example)

    3) the availibity and low price of contraception

    4) the emancipation of women: if you put off having your first child you reduce the maximum number of children you can have in your lifetime, the same happens when people are no longer forced to marry when they’re young (they spend years looking for a suitable partner)

    5) the increased technological level of society necessitates more time to be spent receiving education, during which it is not practical to have children (for social and financial reasons)

    6) changing legislation regarding slave women, concubines, inheritance, divorce, alimony, DNA testing, etc… that make it much harder to just deny the existence of unwanted children

    7) probably minor factors, but still, pollution reducing sperm count and gay people being not being forced into heterosexual marriage anymore (though some gay couples use medical science to have a child and adoption by gay couples may decrease infant mortality in society, perhaps even negating their lower fertility), finally I know some people explicitly have less children because they worry about overpopulation and environmental damage, a worry that didn’t use to exist when science was in its infancy and most people couldn’t read

  • Bock

    Surely Balzac had something to say about this somewhere.

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  • Bill

    Female education and economic development are like antibiotics
    against human reproduction. But the fact that you’re successfully committing genocide against a huge portion of humanity blinds you to the fact that you’re also selecting for strains of humanity that will find ways of more efficiently turning wealth into an exponential growth of their babies. That optimum appears to involve lowering the age of female puberty and increasing the rate of de facto transfer payments to support their offspring. The idea that “property rights” are the answer must take into account the political dynamics of the recent election as a warning: Liberal democracy has a _strong_ tendency to serve the most reproductive.

    A female that pumps out 1 child a year from age 8 until age 38 has a 30 to 1 gain over those 38 years. That means an effective doubling time of under 4 years. Many of us may live to see this new breed of “human” become a dominant demography.

    The “demographic transition” fantasy is like the fantasy that we can over-use antibiotics without developing resistant strains of highly virulent bacteria.

  • Bill

    It’s really basic economics:

    The iron law of wages states that in a labor market wages will fall
    to the cost of labor’s subsistence. The problem is that the definition of “subsistence” has changed due to the advent of birth control and feminism. “Subsistence” used to, by implication, include reproduction — so you labor costs simply could not decrease below what it cost to obtain a fertile female and keep her happy with her circumstances. With feminism and birth control, the demand for fertile women has gone up — not as reproducers, but as employees. This at the same time land prices, hence home prices, have gone through the roof. This guts a fundamental factor of human happiness for all but those rich enough, or sexist enough (say, Islamics, Orthodox Jews, Mexicans, Hindus and some evangelicals) to be able to afford to keep a woman at home and raise the children.

    The iron law of wages is now destroying the population.

    Oh, and don’t give me this “demographic transition” garbage. The population of the US has not decreased, nor that of any of the other countries supposedly undergoing the “demographic transition”. The “demographic transition” is nothing but the replacement of some population by others — red in tooth and claw.

  • Bill

    Note that the modern critique of the Iron Law of Wages ignores that the ground truth of the so-called “demographic transition” is nothing more than replacement of the earlier developing populations by the later developing populations. This is because — in the context of the open borders/global labor arbitrage theocracy combined with birth control technology — the definition of “subsistence wages” no longer includes the high cost of child rearing in more developed nations. The demographic collapse of earlier developing populations is not having the upward pressure on wages among those populations that modern economists

    Modern economic theory is genocide.

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  • Arthur

    This post reminded of an old Karl Smith post about the choices poor people have and make:

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