Sweden – an ideal environment for immigrants to meet their childbearing ideals?

A recent study from Stockholm University investigates how immigrants’ childbearing – their age at first birth and number of children – are associated with norms and family support in their destination country. Is it easier for immigrants from countries with low fertility rates to achieve their childbearing ideals in Sweden, a country with strong support for childbearing and parenthood?

Eleonora Mussino, researcher in Demography.
Eleonora Mussino, researcher in Demography.

The study, “The Fertility of Immigrants From Low-Fertility Settings: Adaptation in the Quantum and Tempo of Childbearing?” was recently published in the journal Demography. It focuses on women from countries with low birth rates and compares those who migrated to Sweden at different ages, as well as members of the second generation: women born in Sweden with parents who were born in countries with low birth rates.

The aim of the study was to see if there was evidence of adaptation towards the Swedish norms and behaviour around childbearing, within and across generations. 

The typical pattern of childbearing in Sweden, for the Swedish-born with Swedish-born parents, is an average age at first birth of 26 and an average of two children at age 40 for women who were born 1940-1976. The researchers found that immigrants from low fertility countries often had their first child at a later age, more in line with Swedish patterns, compared with the average age at first birth in their origin country. 

However, almost all groups had fewer children than the native-born children of native-born Swedes.

“These results run contrary to our expectation that the Swedish context – with strong support for childbearing and parenthood – provides an ideal environment for women from low fertility origins to meet their fertility ideals and to combine childbearing and working life”, says Eleonora Mussino, researcher in Demography at the Department of Sociology at Stockholm University. 


Implications for social policy

So why is it important to investigate immigrant’s patterns of childbearing?

The topic is of great interest to demographers, since migration is one of the mechanisms that is believed to help slow population ageing in many European countries. Studying immigrant fertility is also important because it can tell us how a new social context shapes individuals’ lives. 

Age at first birth may also have significant implications when it comes to the design of social policy. In many high-income countries, foreign-born women often experience an earlier age at first birth than those who are native-born, which may be a source of socio-economic inequality. 

“Early parenthood can prevent women from gaining higher education or progressing in the labor market, which in turn can have life-long consequences”, says Eleonora Mussino. 

The study focused on women who arrived to Sweden from countries with ’below-replacement’ fertility (a lower level of childbearing than is required to retain the same population size over subsequent generations). Child migrants were compared by their age at arrival, whether arriving as young children or as teenagers, as well as to the second-generation. The researchers found that those who arrived to Sweden as younger children, tended to adapt more to Swedish norms in terms of age at first birth. However, the researchers did not find similar evidence of adaptation for the number of children born at age 40. Women who were born in Sweden to immigrant parents had fewer children at age 40 than the Swedish norm, which is in line with previous studies, but this is the first time that this has been confirmed for such a wide range of countries. 
This evidence of a lack of adaptation, in terms of number of children at age 40, may be due to a range of reasons, including exposure to preferences, values, and norms related to childbearing that are different from those typical in Sweden — for example, via the influence of peers, role models, community environments, parents, and other family members. The results also vary a lot between women from different low-fertility countries, suggesting that simple generalisations are innapropriate. 

“Our results indicate the difficulties of generalizing about child migrants, who differ not only in their fertility behavior by origin, but also by age at arrival — even for origins that are similar to Sweden, such as Finland”, says Eleonora Mussino. 


Facts – how the study was carried out

The study “The Fertility of Immigrants From Low-Fertility Settings: Adaptation in the Quantum and Tempo of Childbearing?” focused on women from origins with lower birth rates than Sweden, who arrived to Sweden as child migrants but also in comparison to women who migrated as adults and second-generation women. The main source of data was the Migrant Trajectories data collection from Statistics Sweden, and included women who were born from 1940-1976 (i.e. aged 40-76 in 2017) and did not emigrate or die prior to age 40. The study population was women older than 40 and included 37,000 female child migrants, 32,000 second-generation women, and more than 1.5 million female native-born Swedes. In the study, the researchers included 14 different origin groups but focused on the largest origin countries of migrants in Sweden with a total fertility rate below 1.9 in 2013.

“The Fertility of Immigrants From Low-Fertility Settings: Adaptation in the Quantum and Tempo of Childbearing?” by Eleonora Mussino, Ben Wilson and Gunnar Andersson was recently published in Demography. 

This article was published 2022-04-04