Many Gen X women, overworked and in debt, take a pass on parenthood

Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 13, 2011

I see them downtown, these women my age who have no haunted look of sleeplessness in their eyes. They don’t have suspicious stains on their clothes. They aren’t picking smashed Cheerio bits out from between their BlackBerry keys. (We working moms live in a world of perpetual BlackBerry outages, constantly explaining the latest apple-juice incident to the IT dude.) My first thought when I see these women in their 30s and 40s is, “Right on, sister.”

Nearly half the women who make up Generation X — 43 percent — have no children.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Attribute it to more opportunities in the workforce, relaxing social pressure, advances in contraception or watching women such as myself slip into an increasingly disheveled state of hysteria for years after childbirth and vowing not to follow suit.

We represent the first generation of women who truly, honestly have a choice about whether to be society’s incubators. No longer are we expected to pop out 10 young’uns so the odds are good one or two will survive to help till the fields.

But then I think about what it means to be Gen X, the forgotten generation of folks between the ages of 33 and 46. We are a 46-million-strong latchkey, Scooby-Doo-educated, divorced-scarred, Pop-Tart-fed statistical valley wedged between the peaks of 76 million boomers and 70 million Millennials that are the “E” Generation.

Our working moms put house keys on avocado-colored yarn around our necks while they headed out to the workforce in a cloud of Jean Nate and Virginia Slims. Motherhood was not necessarily the state of euphoria that all of us aspired to.

We headed to universities in record numbers; we’re out-earning men at an unprecedented rate; 75 percent of us have identified ourselves as “ambitious,” and, yes, we have choices.

The Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank that studies workplace issues, dropped that 43 percent bombshell last month in a study called “The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation.” It said that career ambition has had something to do with the decision not to have children, sure.

But the study also suggested that among the reasons a record number of women are opting out of parenthood is that they are working extreme hours — on average, more than 60 hours a week — and are still crushed by student loans and credit card debt.

And it’s not fair to call it a case of materialism run amok. The hopes and dreams of this generation aren’t smothered by too many big screens bought on credit. The nation’s financial health and Gen X’s life cycle have had an inverse, sine-cosine relationship. There were multiple boom-and-bust cycles, including the 1987 stock market crash (which occurred just as early Gen Xers were entering the workforce), a mountain of college debt, the current recession and the housing crisis.

Gen X is the first American generation that has not matched its parents’ living standards, according to the study.

Hooray for choice?

Still, most of us who took the plunge into parenthood pretty much knew we’d have to make it up, financially, as we went along. In most cases, you’ll never really have enough in the bank to buy all the wipes you’re going to need.

And then another study came out this week that sharpened the money-baby connection.

Looks like 2007 was our nation at its most fertile. The iPhone was born, and so were about 4.3 million children. Boom time all around.

And then came the drop. The steepest decline in our nation’s birthrate immediately followed, closely following the economic downturn.

Last year, just 4 million babies were born in the United States.

The Pew Research Center’s Gretchen Livingston broke it down state by state, and sure enough, the states in the least financial distress (North Dakota, with its low 3.1 percent unemployment rate, for example), had no evidence of a drop-off. The states hit hardest had the sharpest decline.

That trend held true for race and ethnicity, too. The nation’s Latino population, which has been hit hard in this recession, saw the sharpest decline in birthrates, Livingston wrote.

Is it a contemporary trend? Not really, according the Pew report; America saw the same plunge in births during the Great Depression and the 1970s oil bust.

Any way you slice it, statistically, kids and cash go hand in hand.

In the District, annual per capita income went up, and so did the birthrate. In Virginia and Maryland, per capita income held steady, but births dropped as the economy went south. Cautious suburbanites.

Choices? I thought. Maybe not so many after all.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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