Institutional Change, Happiness, and Fertility

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Arnstein Aassve, Letizia Mencarini and Maria Sironi


Building on existing theories of fertility dynamics, this article provides a theoretical perspective that connects two recent strands of the literature. The first concerns gender equity and equality where institutions play a critical role. The second is that subjective well-being matters in explaining childbearing behaviour (and vice versa). Our key argument is that subjective well-being is a direct function of the discrepancy between aspirations and attainment, here interpreted as a potential mismatch between gender equity and equality. As aspirations change over time, discrepancy arises in so far institutions are unable to follow suit with new emerging preferences. This lowers subjective well-being associated with childbearing, and hence leads to lower levels of fertility. Our empirical analysis is based on the European Social Survey, and although taking an indirect approach, we provide support for this idea. Fertility and happiness are higher where institutions appear to have adapted to women’s new preferences and aspirations, which is further supported by strong gender differences in happiness associated with parenthood. Fathers are always happier than non-fathers—no matter the circumstances of the country where they reside—whereas mothers are happier only when relevant institutions are in place.

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