What’s the connection?
For the past several years, the birth rate across the nation has been declining. This has the potential to pose some very serious implications on the future. Millennials are the group that is in the prime child-bearing range. Why they aren’t having children? What are the factors contributing to this decline?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data at the beginning of this year that showed that the birthrate has dropped to a record low in the United States. The decline is represented in nearly all racial and age groups. According to the data, for the population to reproduce itself at current numbers, then the “total fertility rate” needs to be 2,100 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age over their lifetime. The latest data showed the current birthrate is about 1,765.5 per 1,000. While the total fertility rate has been declining steadily for several years with the rate being 1,820.5 (2016), 1,843.5 (2015) and 1,862.5 (2014), this decrease is the sharpest decline so far. So, what this means is that US women aren’t having enough babies to replace the current population. According to CDC and the Pew Research Center, women who were in their late-twenties had the highest birth rates until 2016. Now, that has changed to women in their early 30s. The Urban Institute reported a study on the millennial generation and noted that between 2007 and 2012, the birth rates among women in their twenties declined over 15%. Interestingly, the number of births to women over 35 actually increased, but not enough to offset the decrease in other age groups. Also, the number of first-time births for women between ages 40 and 44 actually doubled between 1990-2012. This is supported by a different Pew article that found when compared to the 60% of their counterparts in 1994, only 49% of women in their early 40s with a bachelor’s degree had given birth by age 29 in 2014. The study did note that at 34 the numbers evened out with 72% of each group becoming mothers by that age. One positive element of the report is that that the number of teen pregnancies has been decreasing as well. Why is this overall decline in birthrate happening?
Many experts found these findings surprising, especially when you consider that the current US economy and job market is doing so well. However, the decline isn’t likely due to a single cause, but rather a combination of several factors. As far as the decline in teen pregnancies, it can be contributed to the increase in sex education in schools and greater availability of contraceptive devices. Millennials are those that were born between 1981 and 1996, which makes them between the ages of 23 and 38, or prime childbearing age. Most of them still dream of getting married, owning a home in the suburbs and having children, but many are struggling financially from increasing student-loan debt, rising living costs and the ongoing fallout of the recession. Several studies assert that millennials aren’t different from previous generations, but are just taking longer to reach certain milestones. For many of them, it’s because of these financial concerns. So, in order to be more financially stable, their priorities are focused on higher education and career success.
This means that for most millennials, careers are coming first. All workers today are under a ton of pressure as work becomes more demanding. It’s estimated that the time requirements for work has gone up by a full 14 hours per week. Unfortunately, wages are not growing in proportion to the cost of living and since many millennials have student loans, it’s really hard for them to find their financial footing. This is true even if you went to college, work in a steady job and have dual incomes. Also, millennials prioritize fulfillment and a sense of purpose when looking for a job, not just a paycheck. Another big factor is the Great Recession happened right when many millennials were in or getting out of college and has led them to have more anxiety about the future. History tells us that when the economy’s bad, fewer people give birth. The opposite is also true. For example, Toys R Us opened in 1957, which was during the “baby boom” years in the two decades after World War II. When the recession hit in 2007, the birthrates in the following years took a nose dive. It’s estimated that there was a 2.4% recession-related drop. While it may not seem like much, it’s almost 500,000 births. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, there was a similar birthrate decline. In 2018, 11 years after the Great Recession started, Toys R Us closed their doors. A majority of millennials said they want to have children someday, but they don’t see how they’ll be able to make it work financially.
Millennials are taking longer to start committed, lifelong relationships. This means that fewer millennials are getting married. Although marriage and kids aren’t always linked, historical data does show a correlation between a decline in marriage rates and a decline in number of children. A Pew report established that millennials are three times more likely to never get married than their counterparts in the Silent generation (those born between 1928-1945). In 1965, the average age that most women first married at was 21 and, for men, it was 23. By 2017, it had risen to 27 for women and 29.5 for men. In addition, nearly half of millennials who are over the age of 25 have never been married. However, it’s important to note that 65% of millennials who have never been married say that they would like to be married one day. When asked why they haven’t gotten married yet, 29% didn’t feel they were financially prepared, 26% haven’t found someone with the qualities they are looking for and another 26% feel that they are too young and not ready to settle down yet.
When having children, you need to have somewhere to live that will accommodate having them and while some millennials are ready to buy a home, many aren’t. Despite some of them not being ready, they’re the largest group of home buyers today. Also, many of them are leaving urban areas for the suburbs. One of the problems they face is that while they desire larger homes, their needs and budgets don’t match that. This news doesn’t bode well for the increasing number of soon-to-retire and recently retired Baby Boomers, who are looking to downsize and cash out the decades of equity they have built up in their homes (this is where the majority of their wealth is). Many Baby Boomers bought their homes in the 1980s and 1990s, which coincides with time when the average size of American homes increased significantly. According to US Census data, the average home size went from 1,800-plus square feet to nearly 2,300 square feet between 1985 and 1999 and, by 2017, the average home size was over 2,400 square feet and most likely had at least four bedrooms. Since most millennials don’t currently have a need for such large house due to the fact that many of them are still single with no children, it may be harder for Baby Boomers to get out from under their large houses. This in turn affects how Baby Boomers will be able to retire and live during their retirement.
One thing that many millennials are aware of is that once you’re a parent, your child becomes your priority and your life changes forever. There are several factors tide into this. Millennials know that having a child is expensive. According to a report from Merrill Lynch, to raise a child from birth to age 18, it’ll cost on average over $230,000 (this doesn’t include the cost of college). With projected inflation, this number is expected to rise to over $284,000. Also, for parents who use in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy or adoption, it’s even more expensive. So, for the financially strapped millennials, they aren’t having children because they can’t afford to meet a child’s needs. Many millennials also realize that having children can cause spending and investment patterns to shift, which impacts not only the here and now, but their futures as well. Another factor that many millennials are concerned about when having a child is how that impacts the environment due to overpopulation and how climate change will impact the health of their children in the future. Also, there’s no question that information is easier than ever to access. So, all of the information available about the risks of pregnancy and about the possibility of children inheriting health conditions from their parents is readily accessible, which makes some millennials concerned about health risks from themselves, their partner and children. Some millennials are worried enough about the state of current events domestically and globally to not have children. Other reasons millennials state that they don’t want children (or at least not yet) is because they desire to have autonomy, spontaneity, freedom and the ability to travel and when you’re a parent, that’s not possible. The New York Times did a survey in 2018 and the responses were quite interesting. About 25% of those that responded who had children or planned to felt that they had fewer or are expecting to have fewer children than they actually wanted. For 64% of individuals, it was because child care was too expensive, 43% felt that they waited too long to have children because of financial instability and around 40% said it was due to lack of paid family leave. According to the survey results, for the people who did not plan to have children at all, 23% said it was because they were worried about the economy, 30% said they couldn’t afford child care, 24% said they couldn’t afford a house and 13% said they had too much student debt. Another big factor that many respondents who didn’t plan to have children said they didn’t think they’d be good parents. Many couples who have decided to be child-free are doing so to be able to focus on the relationships that they already have. Some have called this selfish, but this isn’t the case. If a couple has decided that parenthood isn’t the best choice for them, they shouldn’t be pressured into having children. It takes a lot to be a good parent and if someone doesn’t feel that it’s right for them, then it’s better that they don’t have any children. Keep in mind that many child-free people do like children, but choose to have an impact in a different way. Often, they volunteer within their community or make awesome aunts and uncles. Sometimes, people try to use the argument that child-free individuals are missing out on something and while it’s true, parents of children are missing out on things too. No one can do it all, so it’s impossible to have every life experience. Another thing that people often ask those who don’t have children are ‘Who will care for you in old age?’ and ‘Won’t you be lonely?’ These questions are things that everyone should be thinking, whether or not you have children, because it’s a mistake to assume that your children should/will be able to care for you when you get older.
Women face another obstacle when they decide to have children. Their careers can stall, particularly their earnings. With women having more and more control over their lives, many feel that motherhood has become more of a choice than an obligatory fact. Since 1970 the number of women who have chosen to remain childless has doubled. Despite all of these changes, a study done in 2012 that surveyed approximately 1,200 American women who were of reproductive age and had no children found that they feel social pressures to have them. The survey did note that women who choose to be child-free faced fewer stressors than those who were childless due to circumstances out of their control. Also, women are delaying having children until they’re older. With safe birth control options more widely available, it’s feasible for women to wait until their mid-to-late thirties to become mothers. There are several positive things that come from women having children later. For instance, mothers who are older are typically more likely to have saved money from being in the workforce longer and are also more likely to have made stronger strides up the career ladder, which increases their earning potential throughout the rest of their careers. Once women feel established in their careers, they have the luxury of not needing to prove themselves while trying to juggle the demands of having children. In addition to the career benefits, several studies have found that older maternal age is associated with women living longer lives. The impact of waiting to have children until later is also associated with positive long-term outcomes for the children. This is largely in part because the children benefit from mothers who are better educated and more established.
One factor that could greatly impact the ability of women to have children later in life is that female fertility begins decreasing at age 32 and significantly after 37. There are ways to help reduce the impact of this problem, such as freezing eggs. However, not many women are doing this, even though many of them would like to. This is because it costs a significant amount of money, which they don’t have. Another procedure that is increasing in popularity is IVF, but it’s also expensive. Usually, neither of these are covered by health insurance. In order to help combat this decrease in birthrate, we, as a nation, should be adopting policies that make it easier for people to both have/raise children when they’re ready while still building their careers. One policy that is helpful is government spending on childcare for young children. We should also be encouraging health insurance companies to cover fertility treatment options. The US is not alone in experiencing a declining fertility rate, with other places, like Germany and Japan, also having similar decreases. These other countries have implemented some policy and it’s starting to help reverse the declining fertility numbers. High employment rates among women and high fertility levels don’t have to be in conflict with each, but they will continue to be if policies are not put in place that will make it easier for women to work and have children.
As a nation, we need to change our mindset around work because right now when someone wants a flexible schedule, it’s equated to low ambition and being lazy. This isn’t usually the case. When a person or couple have children, their priorities shift and their ability to work the same number of hours in one location becomes incredibly challenging. Instead of penalizing people for having children, our society needs to help create an alternative career path that allows people to take the amount they’re working down a notch during their parenting years and bring it back up again when they’re ready. If the childless trend continues, it will impact our society in ways we can’t see yet because the fertility rate impacts many different factors. If we don’t address it, who knows to what extent the impact will be.