At 3.1 babies per woman, Israel’s average fertility rate is much higher than any other member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The second highest is just 2.15 babies per woman in Mexico, almost one child less per family.
Contrary to Western trends, in Israel educated and less educated woman are having babies, as are religious and less religious woman. According to recent research from The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, an independent, non-partisan, socioeconomic research institute based in Jerusalem:
Israel’s fertility is not only exceptional because it is high. It is also exceptional because strong pronatalist norms cut across all educational classes and levels of religiosity, and because fertility has been increasing alongside a rise in the age at which women first give birth and increasing education levels — at least in the Jewish population. From an international perspective, these are extremely unusual patterns.
Western countries fertility was last as high as 3.1 in the US toward the end of the baby boom in the mid-1960s, in Italy in 1931, in Germany in 1914, in the UK in 1908, and in France in 1889.
Why are Israel's fertility patterns so different from other developed countries? The current demographic make-up of Israel is about 74% Jewish, 21% Arab, and 5% “Other”. The Arab population is predominantly Muslim (about 17%), and Arab Christians and Druze constitute about 2% of the population. Of the Jewish population, about 75% are secular or traditional Jews, as opposed to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Among ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredi Jews), the average fertility rate has remained constant at about seven children per family, and the average family size is currently similar for both ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs. However, recently Arab fertility rates have fallen drastically to follow Western fertility trends.
Therefore, the rise in Israel’s fertility over the last two decades has actually been largely driven by secular and traditional Jewish women, whose average fertility rate is 2.2 children per family. This is also higher than any other OECD country. Perhaps strangely, it has been increasing despite women having children later in life and working more. In fact, non-Haredi Jewish women have higher employment rates than women in any other OECD country, except for Iceland.
Also unlike other Western countries, highly educated Israeli women have just as many children as their less educated counter-parts.
According to The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, to a large degree the reasons behind Israel’s fertility trends remain a mystery. But it considers it worth looking into why Israel is able to maintain such an exceptional ‘fertility profile’, especially among his most educated citizens.
Some factors affecting fertility are the cultural and religious nature of life in Israel, and that women are able to relatively easily balance work life with family life, but this does not fully explain why Israel is so different from other OECD countries.
Israel is doing well economically from a macro perspective, with GDP growth high (but not per capita), the standard of living increasing, and poverty levels falling slightly. However, of concern is a divide between the high-tech industry and the rest of the economy. Unfortunately, the amount of training required to enter these industries is out of reach for most workers, leading to high wage disparity.
Sadly, poverty remains high in the country (due to very high prices rather than simply low incomes). Hopefully Israel will be able to use its uniquely positive fertility profile to pull more of its citizens out of poverty and further increase its standard of living.
And can the many countries grappling with how to increase their own fertility learn something of its secret?