It is well-known that fertility in Israel is much higher than in other developed countries. People often mention two factors that encourage Israel’s high fertility: the cultural aspect, which is anchored in the historical experience of the Jewish people, and particular policies that make it easier for Israeli women to balance work and family. Yet these arguments are less convincing when we compare Jews in Israel to their counterparts elsewhere. Although they share the same history, fertility among Jews in every other developed country is considerably lower – including among Jews living in Europe, where welfare policies are more generous than in Israel.
These data reinforce the idea that Israel has a strong pro-family sensitivity that expresses itself in a desire for children. In a recent Taub Center study, we documented that only 6% of Jewish women aged 45-59 had never had a child, relative to 11% and 13% among their Mediterranean and Northern European counterparts (respectively), and 14% among Israeli Arabs. This pro-family sensitivity is not only apparent among married women; fertility in Israel has been rising both within and outside of marriage. The sharpest rise in fertility among never-married Israeli women over the last few decades has been among those in their late 30s and early 40s; that is, among women who seemingly want to have children while they are still fertile and create a family, even outside the framework of marriage.
Therefore, Israel’s high fertility is not just driven by certain parts of the population, such as Haredi women, having many children (the fertility rate of Haredi women has fluctuated around 7 children per woman since the 1980s), but also by the extremely widespread practice across all of Israeli society of having children to begin with.
In our research, we also documented that over the last 20 years, fertility levels of Jewish women in Israel have actually increased alongside a rapid rise in the age at first birth (this is counter to the worldwide trend that, as the age at which women first give birth increases, fertility levels decrease). Additionally, their fertility levels have increased alongside impressive rises in the female labor force participation; as documented by Taub Center researcher Hadas Fuchs and Taub Center President Prof. Avi Weiss, a higher percentage of non-Haredi Jewish women in Israel work than women in any other OECD country barring Iceland.
Another oddity about fertility in Israel is that, by age 40, women with a college degree have the same number of children as those whose highest level of education is high school. In almost every other developed country, more educated women have fewer children. Thus, not only are Israeli women having children pretty much across the board, but, in contrast to what is happening in the rest of the world, trends associated with reduced fertility – an increase in the number of women pursuing higher education, working, and starting to have children at a later age – are not resulting in fewer children, but rather in more children born to more-educated and older parents.
What might be driving these pro-family trends in Israel?
One possible explanation is reflected in research by other Israeli demographers like Barbara Okun and Guy Stecklov that demonstrates the important role that extended family connections play in day-to-day childrearing: the presence of grandparents, uncles, and aunts not only makes childrearing easier to balance with work, it also sets an example that people need not choose between a career and a family.
That being said, the causes of Israel’s high fertility generally remain a mystery to us. However, one thing is for sure as we celebrate this year’s “Family Day”: Israel’s fertility – and potentially its approach to family in general – is exceptional in the developed world.