Surprising results in a new study on childbearing and education

In almost every country, women with more education have fewer children. But does education reduce childbearing, or does childbearing get in the way of education, or both? New research by Joel E. Cohen and colleagues in Norway found that, at least among a population of Norwegian women, childbearing impeded education more than education impeded childbearing. The surprising findings are reported online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"These results suggest that women with advanced degrees have lower completed fertility on the average principally because women who have one or more children early are more likely to leave or not enter long educational tracks and never attain a high educational level," says Cohen, who is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor and head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University and at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Cohen and his co-authors, Øystein Kravdal and Nico Keilman from the University of Oslo, followed all the women born in Norway in 1964 through the end of their childbearing, using year-by-year data on , enrollment and reproduction.

"We did this study in because that's where we could get such beautiful data, not because that's where there's a big problem," Cohen says.

The researchers expected to find that women around 40 years old with more education bear fewer children mainly because education reduces childbearing. However, they found the opposite: women who have children early seem not to go on to higher education, much more than higher education reduces childbearing. "That's the main contribution of our paper," co-author Kravdal says. "We quantified the relative important of fertility for education and vice versa."

Cohen and his colleagues offer several possible policy implications based on their findings. For example, should women be discouraged from bearing children at an early age? The authors suggest that policy makers could recognize that early childbearing may be a result of decisions made by well-informed individuals. On the other hand, if society places a large value on education that is inadequately taken into account through individuals' decision making, policies could be adopted that discourage people from having at an early age.

In addition, if women underestimate how much childbearing interferes with further education — along with potentially adverse consequences for their long-term quality of life — then a case could be made that it would be a good idea to create more awareness about the educational consequences of early childbearing.

Finally, a policy could be implemented that offset the effect of on education by, for example, lowering the cost of child care for students who are mothers. Such a policy, the authors say, could in principle make more interested in having a child early; however, it would increase the educational levels for those who would have a child (whether wanted or not) while they are still young, with potentially beneficial effects also on others' well-being.

"We discussed the policy implications at length, but with hesitation because more and better analyses need to be done, especially in developing countries," says Cohen.

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More information: "Childbearing impeded education more than education impeded childbearing among Norwegian women," by Joel Cohen, Øystein Kravdal, and Nico Keilman, PNAS.
Citation: Surprising results in a new study on childbearing and education (2011, July 4) retrieved 22 August 2019 from
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Jul 04, 2011
This is simple. I'm not even going to get into the discussion. Parenthood has a negative effect on the single parent's prospects for future education. It does not prevent it, but only the very motivated will succeed to their ability.
To complete the argument, once educated, a human being understands the value of establishing a 0 growth policy around the world.

Jul 05, 2011
To complete the argument, once educated, a human being understands the value of establishing a 0 growth policy around the world.

0 growth? That means a couple can have two children... clearly the women in Norway are poorly educated.

Jul 05, 2011
lol. Well "more likely to understand the value of establishing a 0 growth policy". Native custom survives.
Still, look at the oldest of the developed nations and it appears that something to do with education. Of course, education brings employment and security which, I believe, have a negative bearing on child production.

Jul 05, 2011
Let's not forget the religious aspect, no birth control = more kids. Religion = less birth control. Religion (in many ways) = less education. Therefore, end religions and the world will become more educated, therefore less populated. Simple.

Jul 05, 2011
I must point out the fact that this only serves to point out the disturbing revelations proposed by the movie Idiocracy...
Now, let's explore the "why" to these findings...

More education = higher-paying job = more stress = less time to mingle, meet people, marry, have kids

Having kids earlier = need for more money = working whatever jobs you can get, or marrying well = less time to study

Unless you can have kids and also have family to help raise them, the typical woman will have to do what she can to supply for them, and they will often find themselves without the time, nor the money to seek any higher education.

On the flipside, women who seek higher careers will find themselves with more education, thus a job that demands much more from tem, and can severly limit their ability to "have the time" to have a kid, etc...

Jul 19, 2011
The study doesn't really show anything.

The authors completely ignores the difference between cause and effect. A woman that is highly career oriented may choose not to have children at an earlier age in favor of her education. The reduction in number of children may therefore be caused by her lack of interest in children, rather than her lack of time.

The opposite effect could influence the early mothers. Someone who willingly has a child at an age of 20 is probably not geared towards making a career. Thus, she might not have entered a higher education at a later age even if she had no children.

Sadly, this is typical of how sociologist make their studies: ignore anything that does not speak in favour of their hypothesis. Since their peer-reviers are equally inept in thinking logically, the probability of getting caught is virtually zero.

Jul 19, 2011
You miss the point, hb. This is about numbers, not individuals. In the US (and other developed countries), the number of children born to women of child bearing age has been in steady decline for decades.

Jul 20, 2011
The "numbers" - as you call it - is not the principal finding of the researchers.

They claim that the reduction in education for the early mothers is a consequence of them having had children early on, and that this effect is more pronounced than the reduction of children of the women that allready have a university degree.

My point is that we don't really know if the early mothers do not pursue an academic degree because the are more family oriented - as shown by their preference to form a family early on - or if it is due to the difficulties of studying and raising children at the same time.

It would have been straightforward to test the IQ of the mothers from the different groups, and only a bit more difficult to measure their "drive" and "ambition" in some psychological test.

But, of course, we cannot really expect social "scientists" to let intellectual honesty get in the way of obtaining "results"...

Jul 22, 2011
It's probably a bit of both reasons for women not pursuing higher education after having kids, early or not... The fact is that it's much more difficult, both time/energy and financially, to raise kid(s) AND get a degree at the same time. Both endeavors demand a lot of attention and money, and if you ask them which is more important, the kid or the education, they will almost always choose the kid.

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