PRI Spotlight: Trust and Fertility Dynamics

by Léa Pessin,  Population Research Institute, Penn State
Industrialized countries have experienced a decline in fertility following the baby boom era. This decline, however, has produced stark cross-national differences in fertility trends (Billari and Kohler, 2004; Kohler, Billari, and Ortega, 2002). Unexpectedly, the lowest fertility rates have emerged in countries that were traditionally considered family oriented, such as Italy, Spain, and Greece. In contrast, in Northern European and Anglo-Saxon countries, fertility rates have remained close to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.
This empirical puzzle challenges existing explanations of fertility decline: Why is fertility higher in countries that first adopted postmodern family values? Why is fertility higher both in social-democratic countries, such as Norway, and in liberal countries, such as the United States?
The research team- Arnstein Aassve and Francesco C. Billari at Università Bocconi, and Léa Pessin at Pennsylvania State University-  argue that generalized trust is a key factor explaining this divergence in fertility trends across industrialized countries over the past four decades. The concept of generalized trust is widely used in the social sciences. It refers to our ability to trust someone that we have previously never met and that we know nothing about (Uslaner, 2002). As more women enter higher education, traditional childrearing activities need to be outsourced outside the family, and higher levels of generalized trust reflect a higher predisposition to outsource care activities outside the family.

We rely on data from the 1981 to 2009 rounds of the World Values Survey[1] and the European Values Study[2] (WVS-EVS) to test whether country-level generalized trust is associated with higher fertility as education among women expands. Our sample is restricted to 93,213 individuals aged 40 years and above nested in 36 industrialized countries.

Did You Know?

  • In the United States, fertility rates have averaged around 2 children per woman between the 1990s and 2000s compared to only 1.4 in Italy, for example.
  • Population projections show that a country, with a total fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, can expect its population to halve every 45 years.

Sources: Kohler, Billari, and Ortega (2002), World Bank (2016)

How Is Generalized Trust Measured?

We use the following question in the WVS-EVS to measure generalized trust: “Generally speaking, do you think that most people can be trusted?” The possible answers are 0 = “Can’t be too careful” and 1 = “Most people can be trusted.” We aggregate these data for each country and each round of the surveys to obtain a country-level measure of generalized trust. There is large variation across countries. Overall, however, generalized trust is higher in Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries and lower in Mediterranean and Eastern European countries.

We first provide descriptive evidence for our argument by exploring historical trends in fertility and women’s education by levels of generalized trust. We divide our sample between low- trust countries and high-trust countries. Low-trust countries have generalized trust levels below the median in our sample, whereas high-trust countries have generalized trust levels above the median. In low-trust countries, the correlation between women’s education and TFR remains negative throughout the entire period. In high-trust countries, on the other hand, the correlation becomes positive in 1985 and continues to increase thereafter. While only descriptive, these trends suggest that in high- trust countries, women’s emancipation and motherhood are more compatible than in low-trust countries.

These simple descriptive findings are corroborated in our final statistical models. We apply multilevel Poisson regression to our data to test whether individual-level fertility is higher in high-trust countries as women’s education expands. The key empirical test in our models lies in the interaction between country-level measures of generalized trust and women’s education at the cohort level. Throughout our models and several robustness checks, we find a positive and statistically significant interaction between country-level generalized trust and women’s education. Using predictions based on our statistical models, we show that in high-trust countries, such as Norway, fertility decline is moderate, and the average number of children stabilizes close to replacement level as women’s education increases. In low-trust countries, such as Cyprus, the expansion of women’s education is associated with a steep fertility decline.


Our results show that generalized trust plays an important role in explaining the divergence in fertility trends across industrialized countries in the last few decades. In line with our hypothesis, we find that in high-trust countries, the expansion of women’s education is more compatible with motherhood than in low-trust countries.

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Related Articles

Aassve, Arnstein, Billari, Francesco C., & Pessin, Léa. (2016). “Trust and Fertility Dynamics.” Social Forces, 95, 663-692.


Billari, F., and Kohler, H. P. (2004). Patterns of Low and Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe. Population Studies, 58, 161-176. doi:

World Bank. (2016). World Development Indicators 2016. World Bank Group.
Uslaner EM. (2002). The Moral Foundations of Trust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press

Kohler, H. P., Billari, F. C., and Ortega, J. A. (2002). The Emergence of Lowest‐Low Fertility in

Europe during the 1990s. Population and Development Review, 28, 641-680. doi:


Copyright © Population Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA.

Suggested citation: Léa Pessin. (2017). “Trust and Fertility Dynamics.” Spotlight: Research Brief, March 2, 2017.

Spotlight is published by the Population Research Institute (PRI) at Pennsylvania State University and features research conducted by its faculty.

PRI at Pennsylvania State University encourages, organizes, and supports innovative research and training in the population sciences. With the talents of more than 60 outstanding scholars, PRI provides a supportive and collegial environment to stimulate collaborative externally funded research. PRI is an NICHD-supported population center, grant no. 2P2CHD041025.