How real are reproductive goals? Uncertainty and the construction of fertility preferences

Maire Ni Bhrolchain, University of Southampton
Eva Beaujouan, University of Southampton

Many women in developed countries give uncertain answers to standard survey questions on fertility intentions. The prevalence of uncertainty is even higher on alternative definitions that incorporate the expected time to first/next birth. On a broad definition, uncertainty is near universal at the youngest ages in Britain, and declines in frequency with age. The finding is surprising, since uncertainty is absent from theoretical accounts of family formation. Women and couples are, rather, assumed to have clear preferences and intentions in relation to family building. We present evidence and arguments to show that uncertainty is both real and soundly based. Drawing on psychology and economics, we propose a new theoretical approach, suggesting that fertility preferences are constructed through the life course. A constructive account of preferences and intentions can explain both their instability and their inconsistency with fertility outcomes. Preferred family size may be a discovery rather than a goal.

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Presented in Session 80: Realisation of fertility intentions

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