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chapter 2

Fertility decline in the Nordic Region

Author: Timothy Heleniak
DATA AND Maps: Karina Berbert, Anna Vasilevskaya and Timothy Heleniak
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The Nordic countries provide generous benefits to families and children. These include long paid parental leave, inexpensive childcare and individual-based taxation, all of which make it less attractive to divide work and care along gender lines. These policies make it conducive for people to have and raise children and to combine childrearing with careers. The main aim is to promote gender equality and get more women into work (Andersson 2020; Hellstrand, Nisén, Miranda, Fallesen,  Dommermuth, Myrskylä 2021). It appears that other factors may be influencing the decision to have – or not have – children.
The Nordic countries have often been demographic forerunners, so current trends could be indicative of future trends in other countries. This chapter explores recent fertility trends in the Nordic Region, the factors influencing those trends, and the impact of the recent declines. 
The next section provides an overview of recent fertility trends in the Nordic Region and a brief overview of theories that may explain variations in fertility levels. We then look at Nordic fertility trends in a wider European context. The next two sections break down fertility levels by region, by the mothers’ socio-economic characteristics, and by birth order. The final section concludes with a discussion of the implications of low fertility.

Fertility trends in the Nordic Region

Total fertility rate is the most common measure of fertility at a given point in time. Substitute indicates for describes the number of children a woman would have during her childbearing years based on current age-specific fertility rates. A rate of about 2.1 children per woman is considered replacement level, i.e. the level necessary for a population to replace itself in the long run. Fertility rates above this level lead to population increase, as is the case in many low-income countries. Levels below this lead to population decline and ageing, as is the case in the Nordic countries and most countries elsewhere in Europe.
Figure 2.1: Total fertility rates in the Nordic Region
(2000-2023)
Source: NSIs and Nordic Statistics Database
In State of the Nordic Region 2020, the fertility rates in Iceland, Norway and Finland were the lowest ever recorded (Karlsdottir, Heleniak, & Kull 2020). Since then, the total fertility rates for those three countries have fallen further to new lows, following brief and small increases during the COVID-19 pandemic (Figure 2.1). The fertility rates for Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland are also new lows. Similarly, the rates for Sweden and Denmark also fell in 2022 to near-record lows. Given these recent declines, all of the Nordic countries and autonomous territories have fertility rates below replacement level. The fertility rates for the five Nordic countries range from 1.59 children per woman in Iceland to 1.32 in Finland. For the three autonomous territories, the rates range from 2.05 in the Faroes to 1.45 in Åland.
The increases in fertility during the pandemic in 2021 were quite small and hardly constituted a ‘baby boom’. They can be primarily attributed to the timing of births rather than a long-term increase in the number of them. One analysis of pandemic fertility trends in high-income countries concluded that the trends represented neither a baby boom nor a baby bust (Sobotka, Zeman, Jasilioniene, Winkler-Dworak, Brzozowska Alustiza-Galarza, László, Jdanov 2023). Rather, they were a short-term stall in the downward trend. Monthly fertility-rate data shows slight increases from January 2021 through November or December 2021 (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany) and Vienna Institute of Demography (Austria), 2024). According to monthly data, after these small peaks at the beginning of 2022, fertility fell even further.
Fertility peaked in the five Nordic countries and Åland during 2008–2010. In those years, fertility rates ranged from 2.22 children per woman in Iceland to 1.87 in Finland. Fertility peaked earlier in Greenland at 2.61 in 2002 and in the Faroes at 2.64 in 2005. While there are some common trends and patterns regarding fertility across the Nordic Region, there are also some differences, with Iceland until recently experiencing higher fertility and Finland having lower fertility and more overall childlessness (Hellstrand, Nisén, Miranda, Fallesen,  Dommermuth, Myrskylä 2021). This recent and almost uniform decline across the Nordic Region has puzzled demographers and is the subject of this chapter.
The total fertility rate is the number of children a hypothetical cohort of women would have in one year. Cohort fertility is the actual number of children women have during their reproductive years. Cohort fertility can only be measured when the women concerned complete their childbearing, roughly around 45 years of age. Period-specific measures such as the total fertility rate are influenced by the timing of births, which might, in turn, influence the number of births a woman has over her reproductive life. The total fertility rate goes down when women postpone having children and tends to underestimate ultimate cohort fertility (Nisén, Jalovaara, Rotkirch & Gissler 2022). Period-specific measures are also influenced by fertility intentions, i.e. the number of children women and couples see as desirable. Fertility intentions can be influenced by factors such as the state of the economy, geopolitical events or personal characteristics, and can impact the timing or number of births, or both. While the total fertility rate has fluctuated and has recently exhibited a downward trend, this might not affect cohort fertility if women start having children at older ages.
The number of births in a year is a function of the total fertility rate and the age structure of the population – specifically, gender composition and the number of women of childbearing age. Following a small increase in the number of births in 2021, partially consisting of babies conceived during the peak of the pandemic, 2022 saw a decline to the lowest number of births in three decades, despite the increase in both the overall population and the number of women of childbearing age. In 2022, the number of births in the Nordic Region fell from 290,000 to 265,000, a decline of 8%. This fall in births, combined with a rise in deaths, resulted in deaths outnumbering births in the Nordic Region (see Chapter 1).
Various theories explain variations in levels of fertility across societies and over time, including the proximate determinants of fertility (Bongaarts 1978; Bongaarts 1982). According to this theory, indirect determinants – which may be, e.g. socio-economic, cultural or environmental – operate via a narrow set of direct determinants that influence levels of fertility. Demographers have identified four direct factors that can explain nearly all spatial and temporal variations in fertility levels. These are the proportion of women who are married or in a consensual union; contraceptive use and effectiveness; the prevalence of abortion; and duration of postpartum infecundability due to breastfeeding. For example, couples might continue to use contraception to postpone or reduce childbearing during periods of economic uncertainty or while pursuing other career or life goals. 

Nordic fertility in a European context

In 2022, the total fertility rate for the EU was 1.53 children per woman (Figure 2.2). Iceland, Denmark and Sweden had fertility rates above this level, with the rate in Iceland being close to that of France, which has the highest rate in the EU. Fertility rates for Norway and Finland were below the EU average. Malta, Spain, Albania, Italy and Poland have the lowest fertility rates, below 1.3 children per woman, which demographers classify as ‘lowest-low’ fertility. The rate for Finland, at 1.32, is close to this level. The fertility rate for the EU has declined slightly, from 1.57 in 2010 to 1.53 in 2021. Notably, the Nordic countries have recorded some of the largest declines in fertility over the past decade (note the differences in the bars between 2010 and 2022).
Figure 2.2: Total fertility rate in the Nordic countries and Europe (2010 and 2022)
Source: Eurostat (2024)
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Most countries in Europe have had a pattern of a steadily declining number of births, despite stable fertility, due to ageing populations with fewer people of childbearing age. The number of births in the EU27 declined from 4,458,386 in 2010 to a low of 4,071,484 in 2020 (Eurostat 2024). This was followed by a small pandemic-era increase in 2021 before another decline to 3,885,585 in 2022. Since 2010, the number of births in Europe has declined by 13%. The Nordic countries have seen a similar decline due to larger falls in fertility combined with age structures that favour more births. In 2022, following the end of the pandemic, the Nordic countries registered a greater decline in the number of births than the rest of Europe.

Regional fertility trends 

At the regional level, age and gender composition are indicative of past trends but also harbingers of future population change. In 2018, prior to the pandemic, most Nordic municipalities had fertility levels in line with their respective national levels. Most municipalities within Greenland and the Faroes had fertility rates above 1.5 children per woman, consistent with national rates of about 1.9 (Map 2.1a). Municipalities in Sweden and Denmark typically had fertility rates of 1.5 or higher, consistent with their national rates of 1.7. By contrast, many municipalities in Norway and Finland had fertility rates of 1.5 or lower. In 2022, fertility in most municipalities across the Nordic Region fell, reflecting the declines at the national levels, but the spatial pattern had become slightly more varied (Map 2.1b). In several municipalities in Norway, Finland and Sweden, fertility rates fell to less than 1.0 children per woman.
Map 2.1a: Total fertility rate (2018)
Sources: NSIs. Data on total fertility rates is not available at regional or municipal levels for all of the Nordic countries. The figures are estimated based on multiplying the general fertility rate by 30 (representing the typical number of reproductive years, between 15 and 45), assuming the general fertility rate is constant throughout this period. The general fertility rate is the number of births per woman during the childbearing years.
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Map 2.1b: Total fertility rate (2022)
Sources: NSIs. Data on total fertility rates is not available at regional or municipal levels for all of the Nordic countries. The figures are estimated based on multiply­ing the general fertility rate by 30 (representing the typical number of reproductive years, between 15 and 45), assuming the general fertility rate is constant throughout this period. The general fertility rate is the number of births per woman during the childbearing years.
The drops in fertility resulted in declines in the number of births across most municipalities in 2022. Combined with increases in the number of deaths, this resulted in more deaths than births in many municipalities, consistent with trends at the national level (see Chapter 1). Most municipalities in Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes continued to have more births than deaths. However, in many municipalities in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, there were more deaths than births. Municipalities in and around the capital and other large cities continued to have more births than deaths due to their younger age structures and higher number of women, relatively speaking. Meanwhile, many municipalities in northern or peripheral areas had more deaths than births due to low fertility and lower proportions of women of childbearing age (Map 2.2).
Within the Nordic countries, there are large differences between the municipalities in terms of age and gender composition. These are driven largely by differences in patterns of migration, with rural and peripheral regions losing people and southern and more urban regions gaining new residents. Migration is quite age-specific and primarily consists of outward migration by younger people of working age – which are also the years of peak fertility. It is also gender-specific, with more women than men migrating away from rural and peripheral regions. This results in a vicious cycle for population growth at the municipal level. Regions with older age structures are losing younger and more fertile people in the largest numbers, contributing to a low natural population increase – or, in many municipalities across the Nordic Region, situation of natural decrease where deaths exceed births. There is a high correlation between regions with small shares of women of childbearing age and natural population decline.
Map 2.2: Women of childbearing age, percentage of total population (2022)
Source: Nordic NSIs
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At the national level, Greenland and Iceland have the largest shares of women of childbearing age (15–45 years), more than 20%. Next are Norway, Denmark and Sweden, with somewhat lower shares, 18–19%. The lowest share, less than 18%, is in Finland, where there have been more deaths than births since 2016. The Faroes and Åland both have shares of less than 17%. Municipalities in Greenland and Iceland follow the national trends, mostly with shares of women of childbearing age of 20–25%, although some are higher than 25%. In the other countries, municipalities in and around the capitals and other large cities have larger shares, 20% or higher. Most regions outside of the large cities have smaller shares, between 15 and 20%. Many regions in Finland have older populations, and these have shares of less than 10%. The lack of women of childbearing age, combined with those of childbearing age having so few children, means that there will be fewer births in these municipalities in the future, leading to further population decline.

Explaining the fertility decline 

This section seeks to explain the fertility decline in the Nordic Region by breaking down births by age, education, nativity and other characteristics of women and mothers. It also examines births by parity and how the decline impacts cohort fertility. The Nordic countries remain at the forefront of many demographic trends and have rich statistical sources with which to analyse demographic processes. This section uses aggregate data to understand the fertility decline, alongside analysis by Nordic demographers working with the unique micro-data available in the national statistical offices’ population registers. The demographers have found the overall decline in fertility during the 2010s somewhat puzzling, as there have been no economic shocks in this period, and the supportive social policy regimes have not changed.
As mentioned above, while there are some variations in fertility rates among regions and municipalities, changes at the regional level tend to follow national patterns. Thus, regional differences in fertility decline cannot explain declines at national level. Rather, the factors that influence fertility decline operate uniformly across regions within countries. 
There has been a steady increase in the age at which women in the Nordic countries begin having children. In 1970, the average age of women at their first birth ranged from 21 in Iceland to 24 in Denmark, Sweden and Finland (Nordic Council of Ministers 2023). The average age at first birth has risen to 29 years in Iceland and 30 in the other Nordic countries (based on the most recent year for which data is available, i.e. 2021 or 2022). In most Nordic countries, women aged 30–34 now give birth to the largest number of children.
The differences in fertility by nativity are small. Fertility differences between native-born and immigrant women tend to narrow within one or two generations (Höhn, Andersson, Kulu & Campbell 2022). In Norway, the fertility rate in 2022 was 1.41 for all women, and 1.50 for immigrant women (Statistics Norway 2023). In Denmark in 2022, the fertility rate for all women was 1.55, for Danish women it was 1.61, for immigrant women from Western countries it was 1.22, and for immigrant women from non-Western countries it was 1.52 (Statistics Denmark, 2023). In Sweden in 2021, the fertility rate for all women was 1.67, for native-born women 1.62, and for foreign-born women 1.83 (Statistics Sweden 2022). Fertility rates among both native-born and foreign-born women have declined in parallel since the peak fertility rate in 2010, so these differences cannot explain the overall decline. The decline in fertility is taking place among women across educational levels, with slightly larger declines among lower-educated women (Hellstrand, Nisén & Myrskylä 2022). 
Among the demographic trends in which the Nordic countries have been at the forefront are the separation of marriage and childbearing and delays in both of them. While many men and women eventually marry, most cohabitate before having children. Registered cohabitation confers similar rights to marriage and has become widely socially accepted (Jónsson A. K., 2021). It has been argued that the fact that fewer people are cohabitating or marrying may potentially explain the recent decline in fertility. However, this has not been found to be the case. Rather, studies have found the decline is partly attributable to increasing union instability, with the primary driver being postponing or delaying fertility within cohabiting unions (Hellstrand, Nisén & Myrskylä 2022).
The consensus among Nordic demographers is that the recent decline in fertility is driven by an increased propensity of childlessness (Jónsson 2023), as indicated by the decline in the number of first births (Ohlsson-Wijk & Andersson). This factor explains most of the decline in period fertility since 2010 – from 57% of the decline in Iceland to 91% in Denmark. The decline is most prevalent among women under 30 (Hellstrand et al. 2021). Figure 2.3 clearly shows the decline in first-birth intensity since 2010, interrupted by small increases during the pandemic. Finland has experienced the largest drop in first-birth intensity and to the lowest level.
Figure 2.3: Total fertility rate for first births (1990-2022)
Source: Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany) and Vienna Institute of Demography (Austria) (2024)
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Among women born in 1988 (i.e. those who turned 30 in 2018), childlessness ranged from 42% in Iceland to 52% in Finland, with the other countries at 47–48%. While it remains possible that some women will have children later in life to compensate for childlessness at younger ages, this also limits the recuperation possibilities. It is difficult for older couples to conceive, either naturally or using assisted reproductive technologies (Skirbekk 2023). This results in couples being involuntarily childless or having fewer children than they intended. 
Cohort childlessness varies among the Nordic countries. For the cohort of women born in 1978, who are now 46 and may be considered to have completed their childbearing, the percentage who never had a child is 11% in Iceland, 12% in Norway, 13% in Denmark, 14% in Sweden and 21% in Finland (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany) and Vienna Institute of Demography (Austria) 2024). For women in Åland, the childless share was 22%. These levels have remained relatively steady since the cohorts of women born in the late 1950s.
As emphasised, a decline in period fertility does not necessarily imply lower cohort fertility. Cohort fertility has remained relatively stable for cohorts of women born between 1950 and 1978 who completed their childbearing between 1995 and 2023. Women in Iceland had the highest cohort fertility, at 2.3 children per woman, while the others had a cohort fertility of 1.9. Using a mix of methods, cohort fertility projections show a decline for cohorts of women born between 1975 and 1988, i.e. those who will complete their childbearing over the next decade (Figure 2.4). Cohort fertility is expected to stabilise or decline in Denmark and Sweden and sharply decline in Iceland, Norway and Finland (Hellstrand et al. 2021). Finland is projected to decline to a low of around 1.6 children per woman, below the threshold of 1.75 that demarcates very low cohort fertility. While previous declines were driven by lower levels of higher-order birth parity, the projected declines are the result of increased childlessness. The Nordic countries have long been at the forefront of demographic trends, and this tendency towards smaller cohorts and increased childlessness may, therefore, be a harbinger of things to come for other countries.
The decline in cohort fertility challenges the assumption that the generous social welfare support package, including long and generous parental leave and inexpensive childcare, contributes to high levels of cohort fertility (almost two children per woman). Finland, in particular, seems to be an outlier among the Nordic countries, with projected lower cohort fertility and increased childlessness (Hellstrand, Nisén & Myrskylä 2020).
Figure 2.4: Cohort fertility for women in the Nordic countries (1950–1988)
Sources: Hellstrand et al. (2021); Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany) and Vienna Institute of Demography (Austria) (2024). Data is actual to 1978 and projected for 1979 to 1988. There is a wide confidence interval for the cohort projections. The freeze rate is also shown, in the middle of the range of projections.
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Concluding remarks

The question remains – why are women and men choosing to forego parenthood? In the past, declines in fertility could be explained by factual circumstances that impacted the decision to become parents or not. In an attempt to explain the current downturn, demographers theorise that the decline is driven by perceived uncertainty and subjective visions of the future (Neyer et al. 2022). Economic uncertainty is usually controlled through either individual agency or government intervention. Perceived risks such as climate change, war, terrorism and global pandemics are perceived to be uncontrollable, and it is difficult to incorporate these considerations into fertility projections. Note that children born today are very likely to be alive in 2100 when climate conditions are projected to be very different.
Current trends towards smaller cohorts will inevitably lead to population decline in the Nordic countries. Population decline can be defined in various ways, but government efforts to counter decline have been shown to have only limited impact, and those that are effective are only temporary. As mentioned, Nordic family policies target gender equality and are not explicitly pro-natalist. In other words, low fertility seems to be here to stay.

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