First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.
These days, with the proliferation of niche dating apps and sexting platforms, there’s no shortage of innovations to help secure the first milestone in that sequence. But while romance may still blossom, the other two signposts seem to be in short supply. And the dearth of the last one — childbearing — may have ominous consequences for the economy.
A report released last week by the Urban Institute found that millennial women are reproducing at the slowest pace of any generation in U.S. history. Childbearing fell steeply in the years immediately following the “Great Recession,” with birthrates among women in their 20s declining more than 15 percent between 2007 and 2012.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Previous periods of financial turmoil have encouraged women to, at the very least, delay childbearing. Such delays can also lead to permanently lower fertility rates, meaning that women not only postpone having children for a few years while the economy is rocky but never “catch up” by having additional kids later on. The Great Depression, for example, led to a great baby bust. The cohort of women who were born in 1909 — and therefore turned 21 in 1930 — had the highest share of childless women of any group we’ve been able to track through the end of their reproductive years, according to Kenneth M. Johnson, a sociology professor and demographer at the University of New Hampshire. About 22 percent of this cohort never had a baby, nearly twice the rate of the generation that reached its 20s during the height of postwar prosperity (a.k.a. the baby boom).
Johnson estimates that roughly 500,000 fewer babies are now being born per year than would have been the case had the higher fertility rates of the mid-2000s continued. He says it’s too soon to say whether millennial women will take after the lastingly lower fertility rates of their Great Depression-era predecessors or whether they’ve simply put off childbearing temporarily while they get their finances, careers and educations in order.
Fertility decisions, of course, are affected by a lot of factors besides the economy, including cultural norms and access to birth control. But while declining birthrates have spawned lots of think pieces about the selfie-generation just being anti-procreation, survey data suggest that young Americans’ desires to have children remain strong.
In 2013, Gallup found that only about 6 percent of American adults age 18 to 40 neither have kids nor want them, virtually the same as the share a decade earlier. And, somewhat unexpectedly, younger Americans seem to prefer slightly bigger families than their older counterparts. Asked to name “the ideal number of children for a family to have,” Americans younger than 30 gave an average response of 2.7. That’s higher than any other age group and much greater than the country’s total fertility rate of fewer than 1.9 children per woman.
On one level, lower birthrates might be worth celebrating. Perhaps today’s young women are behaving more “responsibly” by putting off their procreative desires, especially if they’re not fully ready to have children yet. One important reason that childbearing fell in the years following the Great Recession is that unmarried women had fewer kids. This factor was responsible for the vast majority of the decline in birthrates for young African American and Hispanic women. Given that children of single parents tend to experience higher rates of poverty, this trend seems like a good thing.
But for economic reasons — including cultivating the next generation of Americans to work and pay for the benefits of their many, many elders — we still need more babies.
Preferably, these will be babies born within wedlock, if for no other reason than the greater financial stability usually associated with having two married parents. Unfortunately, however, another key driver of lower birthrates — especially among non-Hispanic whites — is that young people are putting off marriage, too. The key force behind the decline in marriage, as with childbearing, seems to be finances, not dramatic changes in young people’s aspirations for marital bliss. As a recent Pew report showed, a plurality of never-married Americans age 25 to 34 say the main reason they haven’t tied the knot is that they aren’t yet “financially prepared” to do so.
In other words, if we want millennials to achieve all the traditional milestones of adulthood — for moral, sentimental or economic reasons — we have to give them the financial opportunities to responsibly do so. That achievement, alas, still feels like a long way off.