MORE SIBLINGS LEADS TO LESS EDUCATED CHILDREN: evidence from the industrial revolution

More fertile parents give birth to more, but less educated, children. This was the reality in England during the industrial revolution according to research by Marc Klemp and Jacob Weisdorf, published in the February 2019 issue of The Economic Journal.


Drawing on historical church registers in England, the researchers show that having an additional child reduces the children’s chances of being able to write as an adult, becoming skilled or achieving a high-income profession.  The results also vary across social classes, with the authors demonstrating that the negative impact of an additional child was far greater for the lower social classes than among wealthier families. 


The researchers’ starting point was that having a larger family size means having fewer resources for the education of each child, especially in communities where the parents themselves bear the cost for education.  The study explores the idea that parents weigh up the number, or quantity, of offspring to have against the quality – a trade-off that also plays an important role in the field of biology and has been found to apply across species of animals and plants.  This study finds that such a trade-off also exists for humans.


According to the authors, this trade-off plays an important role during the early stages of industrialisation, where new technology prompts parents to reduce the number of offspring.  This is so they can invest in the remaining children’s human capital and therefore their ability to reap the benefits of technological progress.


To assess the effect of having additional children, the researchers use a measure of parental fecundity, their biological capacity for reproduction.  This measure is based on the waiting time of the parents’ marriage to the time of the birth of their first child. As the average family in England around the industrial revolution was about 5 children compared to about 2 today, the fertility of parents played a significant role for the final size of the family.  Similarly, parents had little influence on their own fertility.


By isolating the part of the variation in family sizes which is attributable to fertility, and can thus assumed to be unintentional, the researchers were able to uncover the direct effect of fertility and family size on education.


Fecundity, Fertility and The Formation of Human Capital’ by Marc Klemp and Jacob Weisdorf is published in the February 2019 issue of The Economic Journal