A growing number of studies have suggested that the negative education-fertility gradient among women in low-fertility countries may eventually diminish or even reverse. The empirical evidence is, however, limited with most of the existing studies focusing on individual countries, mainly on the specific context of the Nordic countries. Our contribution aims to provide a systematic evidence on long-term trends in women’s education-specific fertility, including childlessness which in some countries might play an important role in explaining the observed fertility gradients. We examine whether fertility differences tend to diminish or to persist when family size declines to low levels. To this end, we compare women with medium education to their lower and highly educated peers in low-fertility countries in Europe, North America, Australia and East Asia. Using census, register and large-survey data we conduct our analyses for women born between 1916 and 1970, who were in their prime childbearing years between 1930 and 2005 and who have experienced a continuous expansion of education.
Our analysis reveals a great variety in educational gradients of fertility. There does not seem to exist a general tendency for fertility gradients to diminish when family size declines to low levels. The gap between low-educated women and all the others largely diminished with time, but in some countries is started to grow again in the 1960s cohorts. Generally, low-educated women typically still have considerably more children than medium- and high-educated women. Our findings suggest that education differentials in fertility signal both “excess” unplanned fertility among the lower educated women and unrealised fertility intentions among the higher educated women.
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