Why do Israelis have so many children? And what are the implications of this for Israeli society and policy? In this DataPoint episode, we speak with Tamar Havshush about her experiences as a secular Israeli mother who works in high tech and has five children born over the span of just seven and a half years. By sharing Tamar’s personal story alongside data and insight from experts Prof. Alex Weinreb and Prof. Herbert Smith, we take a fascinating dive into Israel’s exceptional fertility trends.
“Milk, Honey, and Loads of Kids” is the first episode in our “Israel 2040” series, in which we look at a number of socioeconomic trends that will shape how Israel looks in the coming decades.
The other episodes in the series (in Hebrew) will be released in the coming months.
Deciding how many children to have is a very personal decision, one that couples and individuals make for all sorts of reasons. For Tamar and her husband, who also works in high tech, having a big family wasn’t always the plan, but they continued to have kids because they really enjoyed the experience. As Tamar says, “It’s crazy and it’s intense and you can pull your hair out just from the frustration, but it’s just also super rewarding.”
People are surprised by Tamar’s big family, but not as surprised as they might be in another developed country. As Prof. Weinreb, Research Director at the Taub Center, explains, Israel stands out in that sense: “The average Israeli woman will have 3.1 children by the time she reaches her late 40’s and in all other developed countries, the average is 1.7 and coming down. So we’re operating in a completely different dimension than all other developed countries.”
This high fertility rate doesn’t only stem from Israel’s more traditional populations – Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab Israelis. Even the fertility rate in the secular population is quite high, standing at 2.5 children per woman, on average.
Tamar sees this in her own surroundings – her family is exceptional, but not by that much. “For a secular woman to have five children is still very unique,” she says. “I know of many secular people that have four kids. Five in an urban secular setting is still an outlier.”
The fact that Israelis have so many children has an impact on society at large and creates a very different age-structure than what we see in the rest of the developed world. In most developed countries, explains Prof. Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, “People mostly live long lives and don’t have a particularly large number of children. And that creates these populations that we’ve never seen before. That is to say, populations with a heck of a lot of old people in them.”
Israel, in contrast, has a heck of a lot of young people. This despite the fact that Israel has a number of characteristics that in other developed countries are associated with a decline in fertility. Even though the age at which Israeli women start having children has been increasing and even though there is little childbearing outside of marriage in Israel, Israelis aren’t having fewer children. In addition, university-educated women in Israel – like Tamar, who has a degree in computer science and mathematics from the Technion – have a similar number of children to women without higher education. Meanwhile, Prof. Weinreb notes that in every other developed country “when a woman goes to university and completes her degree, she has fewer kids than those who finished secondary school.”
Tamar loves her big family, but doesn’t hesitate to share the challenging aspects as well: balancing the demands of career and raising children, managing the logistics of it all, and even just navigating the busiest parts of each day. As Tamar puts it: “it can be crazy on so many different levels.”
Similarly, having so many children poses both benefits and challenges for Israeli society as a whole. On the one hand, we don’t have the challenges many other developed countries face with smaller age cohorts of young people having to provide for the needs of a growing elderly population. On the other hand, with the population growing as fast as it is in Israel, we need to run faster just to stay in place. As Prof. Weinreb spells out, just maintaining the same standard of living means “you have to provide more housing, you have to provide schools, you have to expand clinics and hospitals, you have to train teachers and nurses and doctors, you have to expand roads and public infrastructure.”
All of this makes Israel’s demography quite unique or, as Prof. Smith puts it, “What’s going on in Israel…it’s fascinating for a developed economy.” But why does Israel stand out? What is motivating Israelis to defy all expectations and have so many children? Both Prof. Weinreb and Tamar have some of their own theories about this, touching on secular-religious dynamics in Israel, government incentives, and Israeli cultural and conformist norms. Yet Tamar also brings up the potential impact of having a certain mindset. As she says, “if you already have this mindset, which is kind of the Israeli mindset of ‘it’ll be OK’ – יהיה בסדר – it sets you up more for the dynamic that is a larger family.”
More on the Taub Center podcast
In the Taub Center’s podcast, DataPoint, we zoom in from Israel’s bigger socioeconomic trends and focus on real stories. Who are the people – the millions of data points – who stand behind the numbers? How do their individual journeys embody or complicate the trends we see at the macro level?
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