Why do couples have fewer children than they would like to have? Demographers from Vienna explore the causes of unfulfilled family plans and perceive a reversion to a more traditional model. © Ruslan Guzov/Shutterstock

“We were surprised to see Austria heading back towards a more traditional pattern”, says Isabella Buber-Ennser from the Vienna Institute of Demography at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The demographer is currently evaluating data on family and fertility planning. Her study focuses on how the intention to have a family translates into reality. “Among mothers, we find more part-time jobs today than 20 or 25 years ago”, notes the scientist when speaking about the traditional division of roles in a family. The reconciliation of work and family is still mainly a woman’s concern. Although more women are employed now than in the past, the share of part-time jobs is high among them. The project team members Caroline Berghammer and Bernhard Riederer confirm that this trend is even observable among highly educated women. Basically, women who held a part-time job before their child was born will continue to work part time afterwards. This holds true for 64% of women even once their children are older. Buber-Ennser cautions that this should be viewed as a critical trend in the long run, as it has an impact on pensions and implies a higher poverty risk for women. Two factors are key for this development: the reconciliation of work and family life on the one hand and the fact that in Austria – as well as in Germany – values and norms are still very traditional in an international comparison, on the other. Buber-Ennser and her team exploit valuable empirical data for their ongoing investigations in the project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. For the first time since 30 years, the Generations and Gender Survey (GGS) makes it possible to compare two rounds of interviews with the same respondents in Austria: 3,000 women and 2,000 men were interviewed in 2009 and again four years later about the factors influencing their family planning decisions.

Realising family plans

More and more researchers focus on a couple perspective and take a life-course approach, since having children is not just a woman's concern. Three aspects are central in the FWF-funded project: interaction between the partners, contraceptive use and the partnership situation over the course of their lives. “These are the three dimensions affecting the realisation of family planning intentions, both with respect to the total intended number of children and the short-term plans for having a child”, explains Buber-Ennser from the Austrian Academy of Sciences in the interview with scilog. Between 2009 and 2013, the average intended number of children decreased by 0.2 children among the study participants: in 2009, women and men wanted to have 2.1 children on average, whereas that number dropped to 1.9 in the interviews in 2013. The plan to have a child within the next three years was realised by 43%. The researchers found differences by age and gender. Up to their mid-30s, one in two women realised their short-term plans. Among men, the level of realisation rose from 25% to 50%, and even remained high at 23% for the 40+ age group, whereas only very few women aged 40-44 years who planned to have a child in the near future actually conceived one in the following years.

Sharing childcare and domestic work

Women who already have a child and are satisfied with the division of childcare tasks more often wish to have another child in the near future than those less satisfied. Help provided by the partner for domestic work is also an important factor in this context. If work is shared, couples are more likely to want a child and do actually have one. “However, in the multivariate context (note: including other socio-economic characteristics) we were surprised to find the effect to be very modest”, notes Buber-Ennser. The researchers at the Vienna Institute of Demography will now compare this result with international data.

Higher age and research objectives

For a long time, the birth rate (more precisely: the total fertility rate) in Austria stood at 1.4 children, then rose to 1.5 in recent years but is still at a low level. The so-called “tempo effect” plays a considerable role in that respect. This means that nowadays more women have children at a later age, and this recuperation of fertility postponement leads to an increase in birth rates with a certain time lag – an effect that can be observed in Spain at present. “The intention to have children and the family context in which this wish arises are essential for understanding the fact that families actually have fewer children than they would like to have”, comments Buber-Ennser on her research focus. The demographers aim to exploit available data to analyse various aspects of family formation in Austria in an international framework. In the future, the team wants to concentrate even more strongly on aspects of partnership and the late phase of reproductivity in a European comparison and thus identify possible avenues for family policy.

Personal details Isabella Buber-Ennser is Deputy Research Group Leader of the Demography of Austria Research Group at the Vienna Institute of Demography (VID) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) under the umbrella of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. Her research focuses on fertility and family, migration and aspects of ageing.


Buber-Ennser, I. and Riederer, B.: Realisierung von Kinderwünschen in Wien, Vienna Institute of Demography., 2016 (pdf) (in German)
Panova, R. und Buber-Ennser I.: Von Rabenmüttern und Rabenvätern. Die Einstellungen zur Berufstätigkeit von Eltern unterscheiden sich stark in Europa. Demografische Forschung aus erster Hand, 13(3), 3. http://www.demografische-forschung.org/archiv/defo1603.pdf, 2016 (in German)
Buber-Ennser, I.: Childrearing in Austria: Work and family roles. Journal of Research in Gender Studies 5(2): 121–146, 2015
Berghammer, C.: The return of the male breadwinner model? Educational effects on parents' work arrangements in Austria, 1980-2009. Work, Employment and Society, 28(4), 611-623, 2014
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