Doctoral studies

Doctoral thesis: Estonia did not experience explosive population growth due to an early decline in fertility

Doctoral student of Tallinn University School of Governance, Law and Society Mark Gortfelder defended his thesis, in which he studied the transition of the Estonian population from a traditional, i.e. high and unregulated, fertility to a modern one, which is lower and more regulated.


The focus of Mark Gortfelder's thesis on the modernisation of fertility in Estonian women born in the years 1850-1899. "Modernisation of fertility means that fatalistic behaviour shifts towards modern, planned behaviour," explains Gortfelder. "Due to this change, the amount of children a woman has goes into decline." He adds that, in Estonia, this number fell from four children to two during the generations studied.

According to Gortfelder, Estonia saw one of the world's earliest fertility modernisations, only preceded by France. It was followed by Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and England. It should be noted that Estonia's transition came early due to its socio-economic development lacking behind many Western and Northern European countries. Unlike other Europeans, Estonians were quick to notice and react to the rise in the number of surviving children as mortality rates dropped.

Mark Gortfelder's doctoral thesis shows, for the first time, that in the first half of the fertility transition, families made spontaneous decisions to not have more children, instead of having the set number of children they wished to have. "It was only in the second half of the fertility transition that couples started defining the number of kids they wished to have, which is also practised today," says Gortfelder on the results of his research.

The thesis surmises that due to the early decline in fertility, Estonia never experienced an explosive rise in births. This is one of the reasons why Estonia's population is so low. "In other words," says Gortfelder, "Estonia's population grew less than twofold as a result of the demographic shift, while in Europe and the rest of the world, populations grew by three to ten times in size."

The author emphasises that Estonia's fertility drop occurred with a small offset compared with other cultures after the drop of infant mortality rates. The thesis touches upon this fact.

Doctoral candidate Mark Gortfelder's thesis is titled 'Fertility modernisation in Estonia: An analysis of individual-level data for women born 1850–1899'. The public defence of the thesis took place on Thursday, 10 September. The thesis supervisors are Tallinn University professor and research professor Allan Puur and University of Tartu teaching track associate professor Jaak Valge. The opponents are Stockholm University teaching track associate professor Martin Kolk and Saint Andrews University professor Hill Kulu.

The doctoral thesis is available in the TU Academic Library digital environment ETERA