Population Research and Policy Review 21: 535–574, 2002.
© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
The debate over low fertility in the popular press: A
cross-national comparison, 1998–1999
Princeton University Ofﬁce of Population Research
University of Pennsylvania
Abstract. Aspects of below-replacement fertility have long been debated among professional
demographers. This paper describes the corresponding popular debate about low fertility by
analyzing 437 newspaper and magazine articles from eleven developed countries during 1998
and 1999. Despite the diversity in the national debates due to different socioeconomic, political
and demographic backgrounds, our study ﬁnds important commonalties in the way low fertil-
ity is debated: First, countries emphasize consequences and potential interventions rather than
causes in their popular debates over low fertility. Second, our study reveals that the popular
press discusses low fertility as a serious concern with mostly negative implications, despite the
fact that many of the causes of low fertility are associated with social and economic progress.
Third, the variety of issues and perspectives revealed in the popular debate, while cohesive in
general ways, invites a role for demographers in informing an accurate public discussion of
low fertility, which will help form the most appropriate policy outcomes.
For several decades, Europe has experienced below replacement fertility,
and in recent years, low fertility has become commonplace worldwide. In
especially striking instances, like in Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, and other East-
ern European countries, national total fertility rates (TFRs) have dropped to
lowest-low fertility levels (Kohler et al. 2002) that are deﬁned as TFR < 1.3.
These marked and persistent declines to unprecedented low fertility rates
have not passed demographers unnoticed; rather, they created new interest in
the possible endpoints of the fertility decline and in the relationship between
current fertility trends and socioeconomic conditions.
In addition to demographers’ interest in low fertility, the rapid and some-
times extreme changes in fertility patterns in the last decade moved the issue
of low fertility beyond professional conferences and communications into
the popular forum. Emerging is an active popular debate about the causes and
consequences of low fertility levels, as well as a shift from popular alarm over
too many people to fears of too few.