Subreplacement Fertility in the West before the Baby Boom, 1900-1940: Current and Contemporary Perspectives

Jan Van Bavel, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Between 1920 and 1940, fertility was below the replacement level in many western countries. In today's scholarly literature, the interwar fertility trough is explained by economic crisis and war threat. This paper collects series of fertility and net reproduction rates that are hard to reconcile with such a view. It then contrasts current and contemporary interpretations of low fertility during the interwar period. The views held by interwar demographers appear to differ systematically from current interpretations. According to contemporary interpretations, low fertility was due not to war threat or economic crisis but rather to rising individualism, secularization, rationalization and consumerism. These were trends that, according to leading social scientists of the first half of the 20th century, were already going on at least since the 19th century. The paper concludes by discussing some implications for current theorizing about subreplacement fertility.

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Presented in Session 17: Low Fertility