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Optimal fertility during World War I

Vandenbroucke, Guillaume (2012): Optimal fertility during World War I.

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Abstract

During World War I (1914--1918) the birth rates of countries such as France, Germany, the U.K., Belgium and Italy declined by almost 50 percent. In France, where the population was 40 millions in 1914, the deficit of births is estimated to 1.36 millions over 4 years while military losses are estimated at 1.4 millions. In short, the fertility decline doubled the demographic impact of the war. Why did fertility decline so much? The conventional wisdom is that fertility fell below its optimal level because of the absence of men gone to war. I challenge this view using the case of France. I construct and calibrate a model of optimal fertility choice where a household in its childbearing years during World War I faces a partially-compensated loss of its husband's income and an increased probability that its wife remains alone after the war. I calibrate this probability using the casualties sustained by the French army. The model actually over-predicts the fertility decline by 34% even though it does not feature any physical separations of couples. It also over-predicts the increase in fertility after the war, and generates a temporary increase in the age at birth as observed in the French data.

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