Skip to content

General: Recessions & Family Formation

Study: The effects of recessions on family formation

Economic recessions have profound impacts on various aspects of society, particularly on family formation, encompassing both fertility and marriage rates. Understanding these effects is crucial, as they have long-lasting implications on demographic trends and societal structures.

  • Pro-cyclical Nature: In many developed countries, fertility and marriage rates typically move in tandem with the economy. During prosperous times, these rates increase, whereas recessions often lead to a decline.
  • Data Analysis: Studies analyzing data from 1993 to 2013, such as those using World Bank’s World Development Indicators, reveal this trend. For instance, in the US, Germany, Japan, and France, fertility rates exhibit varying degrees of correlation with unemployment rates.

Deeper Insights

  • Youth Unemployment and Family Formation: The rise in unemployment, particularly among young adults, is often linked to lower fertility and marriage rates. However, this is not a straightforward relationship, as economic theory doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer on how young couples react to diminished employment prospects.
  • Short-term vs Long-term Effects: The distinction between the immediate and lasting impacts of a recession is significant. Short-term effects might not lead to a permanent decrease in fertility or marriage rates, as individuals can adjust the timing of family formation.
  • Cultural and Societal Differences: The importance of marriage in family formation varies globally. In some regions, out-of-wedlock childbearing is common, while in others, it’s rare and socially discouraged.

Economic Factors Influencing Family Formation

  • Income and Substitution Effects: The dynamics of family formation during recessions can be attributed to two primary effects. The income effect arises from reduced family income, making it harder to afford children. The substitution effect, conversely, suggests that lower potential wages decrease the opportunity cost of childbearing and rearing, potentially leading to increased fertility.
  • Gender and Income Sensitivity: The impact of these effects varies based on the male-to-female income ratio and how male and female incomes respond to business cycles.

Empirical Findings

  • Diversity in Responses: The sensitivity of fertility to economic conditions differs across age groups, countries, and other demographic factors. For example, younger women’s fertility is more responsive to economic changes.
  • Racial and Educational Factors: In the US, the fertility of black women is more affected by recessions than that of white women, possibly due to differences in credit constraints and age of first childbirth.
  • Divorce Rates: Economic conditions also influence divorce rates, although this relationship is complex and varies by region. In some areas, both marriage and divorce rates are pro-cyclical, while in others, there is no clear correlation.

Long-term Consequences

  • Completed Fertility: The long-term effect of a recession on completed fertility (the total number of children a woman has) is still a matter of debate. Some studies indicate a permanent decline for cohorts experiencing a recession in youth, while others suggest only a delay in childbearing.
  • Labor Market Entry: The long-term impact of entering the labor market during a recession varies by gender, skill level, and ethnicity. This influences family formation, with potentially more negative and persistent effects for men than women.

Policy Implications

  • Government Intervention: Understanding these dynamics is essential for policymakers. Interventions like subsidies for families with young children, family-friendly labor market policies, and improved childcare provision can play a crucial role in mitigating the impacts of economic downturns on family formation.

Limitations and Gaps

  • Data and Methodological Challenges Many studies suffer from limited sample sizes and the difficulty of distinguishing between economic impacts and long-term trends. This makes it challenging to draw definitive conclusions.


The relationship between economic downturns and family formation is intricate and varies across different demographic and national contexts. Policymakers need to recognize the dual effects of economic conditions on family dynamics: the negative impact of reduced income and the positive impact of increased time available for family activities. Tailoring policies to support families during economic hardships is crucial for mitigating the adverse effects on fertility and marriage rates.

The effects of economic recessions on family formation are multi-faceted, influencing fertility, marriage, and divorce rates in complex ways. While short-term effects are more observable, the long-term consequences are less clear and require further study. Understanding these dynamics is vital for developing effective social and economic policies to support families during challenging economic times.