In the year 1900, the family formation patterns of women living in Berlin and in Lower Bavaria were very different: while women who lived in the big city had an average of 2.7 children, women who lived in this mostly rural region of southern Germany gave birth to more than twice as many children. Today, such large differences can hardly be found – unless you look closely.
That is exactly what Sebastian Klüsener has done. Together with two colleagues, the demographer at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock has performed the painstaking task of compiling and harmonizing data from the last 150 years from a range sources in order to create a comparable set of summarized birth rates for regions in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. In the course of this project, the demographers were able to establish the longest and most detailed time series currently available for Switzerland.
The time series reveal a development that is typical for many European countries: while regional fertility differences were decreasing until the middle of the 19th century, this trend was reversed with the onset of the decline in the birth rate. After this point, the birth rate fell rather rapidly in urban areas, but remained stable in more rural areas. Like in Austria and Germany, this urban-rural gap reached its peak in Switzerland around the year 1920: at that time, the summarized birth rate of 1.3 children per woman in the urban canton of Basel-Stadt was only half as high as in the surrounding canton of Basel-Landschaft. But over the past 90 years, the differences between the two cantons have been shrinking, and today have almost disappeared. In Austria a similar ongoing decline in regional differences can be observed.
In Germany, however, the picture is much less uniform as a result of the division of the country. In the latter decades of the 20th century, birth rates in eastern Germany went on a roller coaster ride, ranging from relatively high levels starting in 1975 to very low levels starting in 1990. Meanwhile, birth rates in western Germany have remained at low levels since the 1970s. However, starting in 1994, the birth rates in the different regions of Germany were once again in alignment. Klüsener has found similar convergence trends since the early 1990s in 15 out of 18 European countries.
The social differences are smaller now
This trend in recent decades toward a convergence in regional birth rates is not surprising. As a result of a number of factors – including the establishment of a uniform educational system, the spread of mass media, the equalization of living standards through social security benefits and the provision of economic support for structurally weak areas – the cultural, economic and social differences between the regions have been shrinking over the course of the last several decades. In addition, improvements in child care services have tended to make urbanized areas more attractive for families with children.
However, after taking a closer look at the federal states of Bremen and Lower Saxony, Sebastian Klüsener and his colleagues found that, parallel to this trend toward regional convergence, there appear to be certain developments that are moving in the opposite direction. Because the data at the level of the German federal states have been reported over relatively large areas since 1945, the demographers also compiled data on the birth rates for 28 areas in the city of Bremen and 255 areas in Lower Saxony for 1971 to 2006. A familiar pattern was found in Lower Saxony: although certain areas that have traditionally had especially high (Cloppenburg) or especially low (Harz region) birth rates relative to the national average were identified, even these differences declined considerably over the period studied.
The large-scale trend found for Germany, Austria and Switzerland was therefore reproduced on a small scale. The picture in Bremen is, however, very different, as the gaps between the birth rates in the various districts of the city of Bremen have risen sharply in recent decades. Klüsener attributed this development to a number of factors, including the likelihood that young women who are mostly childless university students choose to live in certain neighborhoods. Generally, an increasing concentration of people with similar social backgrounds seems to be taking place in cetain parts of the city. Thus, the birth rates between the various districts appear to be diverging, rather than converging. Klüsener believes this trend is occurring in other cities as well, and will likely continue in the years to come.