Women have more options, for one. But a new poll also shows that financial insecurity is altering a generation’s choices.
By Claire Cain Miller– The New York Times
Americans are having fewer babies. At first, researchers thought the declining fertility rate was because of the recession, but it kept falling even as the economy recovered. Now it has reached a record low for the second consecutive year.
Because the fertility rate subtly shapes many major issues of the day — including immigration, education, housing, the labor supply, the social safety net and support for working families — there’s a lot of concern about why today’s young adults aren’t having as many children. So we asked them.
Wanting more leisure time and personal freedom; not having a partner yet; not being able to afford child-care costs — these were the top reasons young adults gave for not wanting or not being sure they wanted children, according to a new survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times.
About a quarter of the respondents who had children or planned to said they had fewer or expected to have fewer than they wanted. The largest shares said they delayed or stopped having children because of concerns about having enough time or money.
The survey, one of the most comprehensive explorations of the reasons that adults are having fewer children, tells a story that is partly about greater gender equality. Women have more agency over their lives, and many feel that motherhood has become more of a choice.
But it’s also a story of economic insecurity. Young people have record student debt, many graduated in a recession and many can’t afford homes — all as parenthood has become more expensive. Women in particular pay an earnings penalty for having children.
“We want to invest more in each child to give them the best opportunities to compete in an increasingly unequal environment,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and has written about fertility.
At the same time, he said, “There is no getting around the fact that the relationship between gender equality and fertility is very strong: There are no high-fertility countries that are gender equal.”
The vast majority of women in the United States still have children. But the most commonly used measure of fertility, the number of births for every 1,000 women of childbearing age, was 60.2 last year, a record low. The total fertility rate — which estimates how many children women will have based on current patterns — is down to 1.8, below the replacement level in developed countries of 2.1.
The United States seems to have almost caught up with most of the rest of the industrialized world’s low fertility rates. It used to have higher fertility for reasons like more teenage pregnancies, more unintended pregnancies and high fertility among Hispanic immigrants. But those trends have recently reversed, in part because of increased use of long-acting birth control methods like IUDs.
In the Morning Consult and Times survey, more than half of the 1,858 respondents — a nationally representative sample of men and women ages 20 to 45 — said they planned to have fewer children than their parents. About half were already parents. Of those who weren’t, 42 percent said they wanted children, 24 percent said they did not and 34 percent said they weren’t sure.
One of the biggest factors was personal: having no desire for children and wanting more leisure time, a pattern that has also shown up in social science research. A quarter of poll respondents who didn’t plan to have children said one reason was they didn’t think they’d be good parents.
Jessica Boer, 26, has a long list of things she’d rather spend time doing than raising children: being with her family and her fiancé; traveling; focusing on her job as a nurse; getting a master’s degree; playing with her cats.
“My parents got married right out of high school and had me and they were miserable,” said Ms. Boer, who lives in Portage, Mich. “But now we know we have a choice.”
She said she had such high expectations for parents that she wasn’t sure she could meet them: “I would have the responsibility to raise this person into a functional and productive citizen, and some days I’m not even responsible.”
This generation, unlike the ones that came before it, is as likely as not to earn less than their parents. Among people who did not plan to have children, 23 percent said it was because they were worried about the economy. A third said they couldn’t afford child care, 24 percent said they couldn’t afford a house and 13 percent cited student debt.
Financial concerns also led people to have fewer children than what they considered to be ideal: 64 percent said it was because child care was too expensive, 43 percent said they waited too long because of financial instability and about 40 percent said it was because of a lack of paid family leave.
This spring, Brittany Butler, 22, became the first person in her family to graduate from college, and she will start graduate school in social work in the fall. She said it would probably be at least 10 years before she considered having children, until she could raise them in very different circumstances than in her poor hometown neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La.
She admits being “a little nervous” that it may become harder to get pregnant, but she wants to pay off her student loans and, most of all, be able to live in a safe neighborhood.
“A lot of people, especially communities of color, can’t really afford that now,” she said. “I’m just apprehensive about going back to poverty. I know how it goes, I know the effects of it, and I’m thinking, ‘Can I ever break this curse?’ I would just like to change the narrative around.”
Starting a family used to be what people did to embark on adulthood; now many say they want to wait. Last year, the only age group in which the fertility rate increased was women ages 40 to 44. Delaying marriage and birth is a big reason people say they had fewer children than their ideal number: Female fertility begins significantly decreasing at age 32.
David Carlson, 29, graduated from college in 2010, when the job market was still rough. He and his wife had $100,000 in undergraduate debt between them. They both work full time — he in corporate finance and she in counseling — but they don’t yet feel they can take time away from their careers.
“Wages are not growing in proportion to the cost of living, and with student loans on top of that, it’s just really hard to get your financial footing — even if you’ve gone to college, work in a corporate job and have dual incomes,” said Mr. Carlson, who lives in Minneapolis and writes a personal finance blog for millennials.
He said they’d consider adoption if they decided to have children but had waited too long. Another option for having children later in life is egg freezing. Only 1 percent of female survey respondents said they had frozen their eggs — but almost half said they would if not for the cost.
Researchers say the United States could adopt policies that make it easier for people to both raise children and build careers. Government spending on child care for young children has the strongest effect. Policies that encourage parents to share child care help, too. Germany and Japan have used such ideas to reverse declining fertility.
High employment among women and high fertility don’t have to be in conflict, but they will be without such policies, said Olivier Thevenon, an economist studying child and family policies at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“Whether the young generation will catch up later is not certain,” he said, “but will depend on their capacity to combine work and family.”
Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.