Traditional demographic patterns are changing astonishingly fast
ANA CAROLINA BELCHIOR’S grandmother never worked outside her home. With six children to look after, she hardly had the time. Ms Belchior’s mother was a teacher in São Paulo, like her daughter, but her life’s ambition was to have a family. She married at 22, and bore the first of her four children immediately. “I did think about starting a family when I was just 21 or 22,” says Ana Carolina, “but it was a dream, not a concrete plan…the main thing was I wanted a career.”
Now 30 and married for two years, she, like most of her friends, is still “scheduling” her first child. “My grandmother did everything for her husband…[my mother] survived and accepted many things. But it’s much easier nowadays for women of my age and educational profile [she has a master’s degree] to insist on proper behaviour from men. We don’t have to accept machismo and sexism.”
Ms Belchior’s family traces the demographic history of a continent. According to new research (see sources below) by Albert Esteve and others at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Latin America is racing down a path from early marriage and large, traditional families to late marriage and postponed child-bearing. This transition took rich countries 50 years, with changes occurring in sequence. In Latin America the changes have happened in half that time and all at once, resulting in faster, less predictable social change.
When countries start to develop, their population patterns shift in two ways. First, they move from high birth rates and early mortality to low birth rates and longer life expectancies. During this process, the population at first grows rapidly, and then more slowly. The main indicator of the slowdown is a fall in fertility. Latin America is well advanced along this first demographic shift.
Brazil’s fertility rate is now 1.8 children per woman. Chile’s is the same (see article). This is below the replacement rate of fertility (2.1, which stabilises the population in the long run). It is also lower than in the United States, where the rate is 1.9. Latin America and the Caribbean saw its fertility rate fall from almost 6.0 in 1960 to 2.2 five decades later. In the United States and Europe that fall took twice as long.
Now the continent is starting on a second shift. As families get smaller, other changes begin, including divorce, delayed marriage, cohabitation and mothers having children when they are older. In Europe and America this second set of changes got under way once the fertility decline had mostly run its course. In Latin America, in contrast, cohabitation and later births are booming while fertility rates are still falling. This is accelerating the fertility fall; it may also lock it in at a lower level.
Cohabitation has long been common in the Caribbean basin, partly because of the legacy of African slavery. Elsewhere cohabitation was rarer. In 1970 less than 10% of Brazilian and Uruguayan women aged 25 to 29 who were in a partnership said they were cohabiting. By 2010, half of late-20s Brazilian women were cohabiting, while the proportion in Uruguay was 71%. Most countries are heading for cohabitation rates of two-thirds and above—more than in Asia and much of Europe.
The change has been led by women with less education and is happening despite the spread of female literacy. In Brazil and Costa Rica, cohabitation rates are over 50% for women with only primary education but below 30% among university graduates. Cohabitation begins by establishing itself among the least-well educated, then spreads to those with more schooling: a bottom-up diffusion. In contrast, the delay in child-bearing begins with university graduates and spreads down. Between 1970 and 2000, around 30% of Brazilian women aged 25 to 29 were childless; by 2010 the proportion had risen to 40%. In Peru childlessness among women of that age group rose from 26% in 1993 to 33% in 2007.
In almost all Latin American countries, childlessness among young graduates is twice what it is among women with only secondary education, a common pattern in East Asia and Europe, too. The more education a woman has, the more likely she is to postpone having a child. But where fertility rates have fallen furthest and cohabitation has risen fastest—Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay—the postponement of child-bearing is spreading to women with secondary education, as well.
Europe, North America and East Asia all experienced fertility declines before the second round of population changes (cohabitation and delayed births). This meant they reaped their so-called “demographic dividend” first (this is the economic boost that comes when the size of the labour force rises relative to the rest of the population). That helped them create richer societies with more extensive social services before the costs of ageing kicked in. Latin America is different: it is cashing in its demographic dividend now, but is still struggling to create good education systems and establish universal welfare. Trying to do everything at once is harder. Without good schools, the bulge of people entering the workforce will not have the skills they need. Without universal social insurance, countries will struggle to look after the rising number of pensioners who will start to appear in a few years’ time.
“The ‘Second Demographic Transition’ features in Latin America: the 2010 Update“, Centre d’Estudis Demografics
“The Latin American Cohabitation Boom“, Population and Development Review, March 2012
“The Family Context of Cohabitation and Single Motherhood in Latin America“, Population and Development Review, December 2012
“Disentangling how educational expansion did not increase women’s age at union formation in Latin America from 1970 to 2000“, Demographic Research, January 2013
All by Albert Esteve, Ron Lesthaeghe and co-authors: Joan García-Román, Antonio López-Guy, Luis Ángel López-Ruiz and Jeroen Spijker.