A vulnerable economic position leads to postponement or even cancellation of the desire to have children among young adults. This was concluded by sociologist Daniël van Wijk in his PhD research. Although unemployment is not always an obstacle for the poorly educated.
“Over the past twenty years we have seen that women are having children at a later age and at the same time you see that young adults are dealing with stagnant incomes, student debt and flexible instead of permanent contracts,” says Van Wijk. “Young adults therefore have a more vulnerable economic position and postpone having children.”
For his research at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, with which he received his PhD from the University of Groningen on Monday afternoon, Van Wijk used data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) for the age group 18-45 years. He looked at whether their income, type of contract and work situation were related to having a first child. There appeared to be a connection here: if someone has a structurally low income or benefits, the desire to have children is postponed or even canceled. Young adults in a vulnerable economic position are up to half as likely to start a family.
When men or women live on benefits, the chance of choosing to have a child halves. For highly educated people, having a job is often important in order to start having children. Less educated people have less of this. According to Van Wijk, the usefulness of postponing a desire to have children in the event of unemployment is smaller for the less educated, because they have less chance of finding a stable job later in any case.
The social environment also plays a major role. “If people at home have experienced that one of the parents was unemployed in the past, unemployment is more normalized and is less of a barrier to starting children when they later have no work themselves.”
Men in particular have a higher income requirement before they start having children, says Van Wijk. “Everything is becoming more expensive and people want to be able to guarantee more investments for their children, both in terms of time and money. This is different for women: in some cases a lower income is even more likely to lead to motherhood than a higher income.
“An explanation for this is that women often lose income after the birth of a first child because they work less,” says Van Wijk. “Women with a high income would then have to give up more income when they become mothers, which makes it less attractive to have a child.”
Age of having first child
In 2000, the average age at which women had their first child was 29.1 years. According to the most recent figures from Statistics Netherlands, this was 30.3 years in 2022. The average age for men also increased during this period: from 32 to 32.8 years.
According to Leo van Wissen, professor of economic demography at the University of Groningen, the housing market also plays a role in these increasing figures. “Not being able to find a suitable home to start a family is an important additional factor.”
Not only are young adults starting to have children later, they are also having fewer. Last year this average was 1.49 children per woman. According to Van Wijk, this is a logical consequence of the postponement. “When people start having children later, their biological clock is ticking. Fertility naturally decreases as you get older, so the room to postpone your desire to have children is limited.”
Van Wissen predicts that this trend will result in an aging population and a smaller working population in the future. “In the long term, this will lead to a growing demand for migrant workers and scarcity on the labor market. At the same time, it will also result in lower costs for education, because there will be more families with one child.”
Inequality in society
In addition to the demographic and economic consequences that Van Wissen mentions, Van Wijk also expects to see social consequences in society: “Having a high income appears to be a fairly strong requirement for having children. For people who do not have a stable income, this means postponing or canceling their desire to have children. And because the income requirement increases, inequality will arise in society. Because the richer people with high incomes more often have children.”