Text: Yann Bernardinelli

“Imagining a life without children is less stigmatised than it was in the past”

Fertility rates in Western countries continue to drop. The sociologist Laura Bernardi explains why.


Laura Bernardi is a sociologist at the University of Lausanne.

Our approach to fertility changed drastically in the twentieth century. Starting in 1900, the average number of children per woman declined significantly from 3.7 to 1.8 just before WWII. That figure began to rise in 1938, reaching 2.6 by 1945. Since 1975, the average number of children per woman has remained stable, fluctuating between 1.5 and 1.6 for women living in Switzerland.

IV / A growing number of couples are struggling with fertility. Why?

LB / Couples often put off having children because they think it might not be compatible with their education or with entering the job market. One of the reasons for this delay is the duration of higher education and the fact that more and more women are pursuing these degrees. Another reason is the extended period of financial instability prior to finding a job that pays well enough to support a family.

IV / What is the situation in Switzerland?

LB / Not very good! In Switzerland, family size is primarily limited by the cost per child.

IV / Have changing norms and behaviours also played a role?

LB / Imagining a life without children is less stigmatised than it was in the past. Individuals value personal fulfilment over family life. Ever since contraception use became normalised, sexuality has become more disconnected
from reproduction. Deciding to have a child means choosing to stop a default behaviour—using contraception—in order to reproduce.
This represents a sea change in the decision process that leads to becoming a parent.

IV / Is the solution political?

LB / Yes. Politics can improve the compatibility between parenthood, education, work and leisure. Age limits for employment and education must be less strict, and men and women should receive equal pay and parental leave. In addition, the costs and hours of childcare and school must remain compatible with those of both working parents.