I teach introductory population studies at Georgetown University. But I confess that after reading Tomáš Sobotka and Éva Beaujouan’s article in the current issue of Population and Development Review, I feared that my students might get this multiple choice question wrong:

In which of the following world regions is there the biggest gap between actual fertility and what people consider to be ideal?

A. Africa
B. Central/South America
C. Europe
D. North America

I think my students might students might pick Africa. After all, they know that it is the poorest continent on the face of the globe and has the highest fertility rate. They know that men taking multiple wives is still common in some African societies. I think when they imagine people not meeting their fertility goals, they imagine uneducated women who don’t make use of modern contraception for a variety of reasons.

So my teaching needs to get better. Because while my students know that fertility has been below replacement in Europe since the 1980s, they don’t know what Sobotka and Beaujouan document so clearly: Europeans still consider about 2.2 children ideal. In Poland where women average 1.2 children, 2.2 is ideal; in Spain where they average 1.3 children, 2.1 is ideal; in Germany where they have 1.4 they want about 2, and in France where women are actually having about two children, 2.5 is ideal. In short, Europeans are falling further short of their ideals than Africans are exceeding theirs. Across the European Union as a whole, the shortfall is 0.5 and in sub-Saharan Africa actual fertility exceeds ideals by less than 0.5 in most places (the gap is bigger in some countries of Eastern Africa).

But I don’t think that my students are the only ones that don’t quite get it. I think there are a lot of people who assume that the ability to achieve fertility goals only gets better as contraceptive methods get better and as women gain autonomy. In fact, as Sobotka and Beaujouan note, Europeans face a number of obstacles including “competing career and leisure preferences, inability to find the right partner, marriage and partnership disruption, disagreement between partners, and the fact that many women and men face unstable employment conditions, economic difficulties, problems with combining work and childrearing, health problems, [and] infertility.”  In the United States we face similar obstacles, but with a gap more like France’s than the lower fertility countries of Europe, what we have is a substantial minority of people having fewer children than they consider ideal, while in parts of Europe that condition is somewhat normative.

The question of what this means for future fertility in Europe is an interesting one. Sobotka and Beaujouan actually spend quite a bit of time at the beginning of their article justifying an analysis of fertility ideals. They feel compelled to do so because of a growing consensus that ideals do not in fact predict future fertility at all—that they represent what people would do in ideal conditions, but not what they do in the real world they live in. They reference the title of a 1982 Günter Grass novel Kopfgeburten, which roughly translates “headbirths”—the full title is Kopfgeburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus, Headbirths, or, the Germans are Dying Out. In other words, if births only take place in the minds of would-be parents, they don’t really count. In addition, others have predicted that persistent low fertility will create lower fertility ideals. After all, ideals have fallen as fertility has declined from higher levels, why would they stop falling at 2?

Sobotka and Beaujouan do not in anyway dismiss the possibility that ideals could fall further, but they document that they have not. They also offer a number of explanations for why people might still consider two better than one, even though having one child offers the experience of parenting at a minimum cost. Their explanations include a preference for having one child of each sex, the perception that single children are spoiled, the benefits to children of having companionship, insurance (not so much against child mortality as against disappointing relationships with children), and conforming to social norms. So it is an open question whether the two-child ideal will contribute to a fertility rebound or the realities of European life will suppress (and possibly even erode) that ideal.