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Baby Blues in Europe as Birth Rate Declines

Tuesday, 21 May 2013 | 1:55 AM ET
Susandaniels | E+ | Getty Images

The latest report from Europe's main statistics agency suggests that the European financial crisis has had an impact on birth rates across the continent since 2008, data supported by evidence from European demographic experts and a U.K.-wide parenting forum.

The report entitled "Towards a 'Baby Recession' in Europe?" carried out by Eurostat, a statistical body of the European Commission, investigated fertility trends in 31 European countries since the start of the region's economic crisis in 2008 and found a correlation between the recession and falling European birth rates across the majority of EU countries.

"In 2008, several European countries entered a period of economic crisis, usually featuring a fall in gross domestic product(GDP). From the start of the recession, the total fertility rate started to decline across Europe," Eurostat senior statistician Giampaolo Lanzieri wrote in his report.

Between 2008 and 2011, the total number of live births fell by 3.5 percent, from 5.6 to 5.4 million, and the number of countries which recorded a fall - compared to the previous year of 2007 - grew from one country to 26 countries out of 31.

(Read More: One in Four Kids Face 'Bleak Future' in Europe: Experts)

"Decreases in fertility became a common feature in Europe with a time lag. The peak of the crisis (in terms of geographic reach) in 2009 was accompanied by stagnation of the total fertility rate in several countries,followed by a distinct fall," Lanzieri said. The European crisis – with its impact on living costs, wages, employment and housing - is having a direct and major impact on family planning.

"A recession can influence fertility in various ways,although its effect may be softened by government interventions. Apart from the direct impact of the crisis at individual level, the economic uncertainty that can spread in periods of hardship may influence fertility," Lanzieri said.

"From this point of view, the duration of a crisis may play an important role and, in some countries, the duration and the depth of the current recession are unprecedented."

(Read More: Youth Unemployment Could 'Scar' Entire Generation: ILO)

A birth rate of at least 2.1 children per woman is generally required to sustain the population of a developed country. The European average in 2011 of 1.58 could have a serious impact if it continues as Europeans live longer and hope to rely on a younger workforce.

Parental Pressures

Justine Roberts, chief executive and founder of Mumsnet, the U.K.'s biggest online forum for parents and prospective parents, told CNBC that anyone thinking of starting a family or having more children was under increased pressure.

"Faced with high and increasing childcare costs,stagnant wages, rising food prices and, for many, the loss of tax credits and child benefit, many parents are feeling under real financial pressure. Our forums are littered with users seeking advice on how to survive on dwindling budgets and how to make returning to work financially viable after maternity leave," she told CNBC.

"Prospective parents are very aware of the huge impact having a baby can have on their lives, both financial and social, and understandably people want to get their ducks in a row to ensure they can afford to have a baby," she added.

All in the Mind?

Although Lanzieri notes in his report that fertility is commonly assumed to follow the economic cycle, falling in periods of recession and vice-versa, the "scientific evidence is still not unanimous on this," he said.

"It may be difficult to disentangle what could be a 'natural' decrease in the number of live births from the impact of an occasional shock,such as an economic crisis." Factors such as the employment status, educational attainment and migrant status – as well as women putting off having children until they are older - also have an impact on the data, he added, though the "lag" effect of this delay had already been discounted in the latest data.

(Read More: More Abandoned Children as Europe Austerity Wears On)

Tomáš Sobotka, who leads the Vienna Institute of Demography's research group on Comparative European Demography, backed the Commission's data.

"Overall, I am convinced that the economic recession has been the main factor behind the observed reversal infertility rate trends in Europe after 2008," Sobotka told CNBC, adding that the U.S had experienced the same trend too.

"The change in fertility trend closely coincides with the onset of the recession. In 2008, pregnancies that were initiated in pre-recession times came to 'realization' and a huge majority of European countries saw rising fertility….Three years later, in 2011, the picture is reversed," he said.

Science cannot always explain the trends, however. "Some countries had considerably milder fertility declines or trend reversals after 2008 than could be expected from their economic situation (most notably, Ireland)….Other countries experienced stronger reaction than could be expected from their economic situation, for example, Nordic countries."

"A couple of my colleagues are telling me it's the recession in 'the minds of people' rather than a real experience of it which made some people in the North changing their fertility behavior). So, clearly, many other factors affecting fertility trends in good and bad times alike," Sobotka added.

-By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt

Contact Europe: Economy

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