Dondena Interviews

There’s what you want. And then there’s what you get. It applies to so many things—an apartment, a meal, a shopping trip—and there are lots of elements that come together to create this gap. It even applies to how many children you will have. Maria Rita Testa of the Vienna Institute of Demography and the Vienna University of Economics and Business is working to figure out the dynamics of that gap between the kids you think you’ll have and the kids you’ll actually have.


If people miss your talk today, what are they missing?

It is on reproductive decision-making, on the effects of couple disagreement on having a first or another child. We analyze only the cases of a first or a second child, on the subsequent childbearing outcome. Basically, we try to examine the side effect of this agreement, so whether the man or the woman has more power and the positioning of this agreement, whether the outcome is closer to not having a child or to having a child. And the third issue is the gender issue: whether the conflict is more likely solved on an equal basis if there is higher gender equality within the couple.

By finding some sort of compromise, you mean?

Yes. In most cases they postpone until an agreement has been reached between the partners.

Tell me about your data.

The data are Italian data, not because I am Italian but because in Italy we have very good data. You need longitudinal data to carry out this kind of analysis. We have two waves, the first one conducted in 2003 and the second one in 2007, where at each wave both partners were interviewed, separately, and they answered the same questions. In the first wave they were asked “Do you intend to have a child in the next three years?” And we basically compare the partners’ answers to these questions, and then we link them to the information on whether or not they had the child, which is provided in the second wave. Of course you have to take into account whether the couple splits in the meantime, but we were lucky because there were very few cases of that.

The surveys, conducted by the Italian National Office of Statistics, are very good quality surveys and were conducted under the framework of this international programme, the Generations and Gender Programme. This opens perspectives for comparative analysis because there are other countries in Europe where similar surveys have been conducted. The problem is that in most of the countries, unfortunately, partners were not interviewed. Either the man or the woman reported the fertility intention of the partner. So it is kind of a perception of whether there is or is not an agreement on certain reproductive planning.

And the results?

We found that women do not have more power in decision-making, even though Italy is a very traditional country and they are the primary person responsible for child care and child rearing, and there are also not so many services. And so, for us it was a kind of surprising result.

The second result is the so-called “veto” power. The veto that the partner gives to the other who wants to have a child works only at parity 2. Why at parity 2? It works only if the couple has reached a family with two children. So if they have already got 2 children, and they are going to decide whether to have a third or not, and there is disagreement, this disagreement will most likely be converted into no child. How we interpret these results is, the two-child family is still the norm in Italy. So for the decision that aims to reach this normative value, even if there is disagreement, you can hope that there will be a child. But afterwards if the norm has been reached, disagreement will very, very unlikely result in a child. And this is also what the famous demographer Norman Ryder said, that there is a difference between normative reproduction and so-called discretionary reproduction.

Discretionary reproduction?!

Yes! It’s this idea of preferences, where you don’t feel any pressure from society. Because usually, the first child you have for yourself. And the second you have because you want to give a companion to the first one. There are good reasons for this norm being here, these are the reasons why this two-child norm is very persistent. Society is changing, everything is changing, the structure of the family is completely different. But still there is this norm, because there are good reasons behind this. You don’t want to have a single child. I mean, there are countries, like the Eastern European countries, where families with only one child are quite widespread. But in Italy it is not yet the case.

And the third result is that we could not find any empirical evidence that the resolution of disagreement is responsive to, is somehow influenced by, the level of gender equality within the couple. But this result we interpret also in light of our poor (rough) measure of gender equality. We have simply a combination of employment status of the partners, whether the couple both work or only the man works. We would need more specific questions. The second measure is on bargaining power and we use a proxy variable, which is the combination of educational level of the two partners. Whether he is more highly educated than her, whether they have reached the same level of education, or the woman is more educated. We could not find any influence of these two variables.

Why do you think it is important to study these things, to know about this dynamic within couples?

For several reasons. I would say that the first one is that we have to learn why there is this gap between actual fertility and intended fertility. In Western countries, in developed countries, we use contraception, so it seems you are really able to have as many children as you want. But still, if you then compare also at an individual level the desires or the intentions with the subsequent outcomes, you will find in most of the cases that the intentions are higher than the outcomes.

Yeah, kids are great until you start to have them, then you realize how difficult they are! You think, ‘Maybe I won’t have five children...’

Yes, I agree! Indeed I always found that people became more accurate after having had the first child, because it’s no more what you see around you, it’s your own experience. But I think it’s still a challenge for demographers because we have not yet, at least in Europe, we have not yet had so many longitudinal studies. And this is the only perspective in which you can really investigate this issue. You have to follow, and to follow a couple. This is really a first study which is based on couples. There were some studies in the United States in the ’90s and one in Sweden, but you will find very few studies using really genuine couple data, couple-level data. I think this is the first strength of the study.

But coming back to your question, why is it important? Because, of course if there is a gap, we have to learn what the obstacles are, to give some kind of implication of our study to policymakers, to say, ‘Look, here you can do better, or there.’ Second, one of the mechanisms behind the fertility transition was the diffusion of contraception, but still there is a mismatch between what we decide and what we are going to have. Desires are a very important predictor of actual fertility. So to understand better where we are going, even in terms of forecasting projections, you have to know how people decide, what do they want to have, at the beginning, and then what they are going to plan to achieve the reality. What are the factors they are considering in this decision-making process? I think it is an extremely relevant question for demographers because in the end, this is the main factor predicting fertility.

Although unfortunately, in the ’70s when they began asking about fertility intentions, in surveys in the United States, demographers wanted to use these answers for forecasting purposes. But it turned out they could not forecast the future. Now, this does not mean intentions are not deep, strong predictors of behaviour. They are. There are huge results showing that if you put everything into a regression model, several background variables like employment status, educational status, parity status, marital status, income level, attitudinal variables—in most of the cases you will find that the intentions predict a large part of the variation. So they are strong predictors. They are still not useful for forecasting, but they are very useful for understanding where we are going because they inform about directional trends.

This has been my major topic of research since I joined the Vienna Institute of Demography in 2001.

Within your field, what do you see going on right now that you really like, and what would you like to see more?

Well, I have to say that we have made quite deep progress, but if I had to recommend a model, I would say first, we need more longitudinal studies, and over a longer span of time. Because at the moment we have several countries in Europe where you can have two waves, they are conducted after three years, but we need to know how people make different decisions in life. Because the family, where they are developing now, they are becoming much more complex. So we need really to change our minds and to use this longitudinal perspective to better understand where the change is happening.

The second would be maybe more strong connections between these quantitative and qualitative studies. Because when you talk about reproductive decision-making, you are talking about something that is very personal. So if you stay at a quantitative level, you are probably not capturing all the range of choices, of obstacles, of reasons. And we have also several qualitative studies, but my wish would be to try to link them together. The same people that enter into a quantitative study, then do a qualitative part, too. This would be fantastic because then you have a link and you can zoom into a subsample of women, of men. But this is the challenge.

The third is that I say we still have to make some effort to try to collect and harmonize data at the European level. The experience with this Gender and Generations Programme was positive, but still when you want to compare, when you want to run a genuine comparative analysis, you face a lot of inconsistencies because in one country a question was asked this way, in another country there was a slightly different question wording. But you know, question wording and these kinds of issues on desires and intentions may make a huge difference in the response. So my third wish would be to kind of harmonize data at a European level so that researchers were able to run cross-country comparative analyses on fertility intentions.

So you leave Bocconi tomorrow and what is the next thing on your academic calendar that you’re excited about?

Currently I am involved in a research project for which I have received a grant from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and it is on “Reproductive Decision-Making and Human Capital” (ReCap). Here the main question is how highly educated women are going to plan to have children. And the key issue is postponement. Because they are likely to postpone the start of child-bearing, but the surprising thing is that if they are asked at the beginning before they start, they don’t necessarily declare to want to have fewer children than lower-educated women. It means that at the normative level they still want to have a family with two children, and they don’t see clearly the incompatibility that may be experienced later on between family and work. So when does it come, this adjustment? After the first child? Or what are the reasons that explain this apparent inconsistency? And the first step of the project is a meta-analysis of all existing studies that have investigated the relationship between education and fertility intention, and the second step is then to look also at actual fertility. Because the relationship at the moment is negative if you look at actual fertility, at least in most European countries. Although there is some evidence for the Nordic countries, Norway, for example, where you can see that the educational gradient of fertility has been weakening. But these are only a few examples.


Learn more about Maria Rita Testa here. Learn more about the Dondena seminar Series here.

















Last updated 23 February 2015 - 13:53:55