While some people are concerned about America’s falling birth rate, a new study, published in the journal Population and Development Review, suggests young people don’t need to be convinced to have more children.
In fact, young Americans haven’t changed the number of children they intend to have in decades.
Women born in 1995–1999 wanted to have 2.1 children on average when they were 20–24 years old; essentially the same as the 2.2 children that women born in 1965-1969 wanted at the same age, the study found.
Still, the total fertility rate in the US was 1.71 in 2019, the lowest level since the 1970s.
What’s going on?
The results suggest that today’s young adults may be having a more difficult time achieving their goals of having children, said Sarah Hayford, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
The data in the study can’t explain why, but the results fit evidence indicating that young people today don’t think now is a good time for them to have children.
“It’s hard to have children in the United States right now,” said Hayford, who is also director of Ohio State’s Institute for Population Research.
“People feel more worried about the future than they might have been several decades ago. They worry about the economy, child care and whether they can afford to have children.”
Hayford conducted the study with Karen Benjamin Guzzo, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Carolina Population Center.
The researchers used data from the National Survey of Family Growth, which has been asking people about their childbearing goals and behaviours for several decades.
The NSFG doesn’t interview the same people each time, but it allowed the researchers to track a group of people born around the same time – a cohort, as scientists call these groups – as they passed through their childbearing years.
They looked at 13 cohorts of women and 10 cohorts of men born between the 1960s and the 2000s. They were all asked how many children they intended to have, if any.
“Americans have been pretty consistent with how many children they say they want to have from the 60s to the 2000s,” Hayford said. “Men generally say they want slightly fewer children than women do, but, like women, their preferred number of children hasn’t changed much.”
The percentage of people who said they don’t plan to have any children has increased, from about 5-8% in the 1960s and 1970s to 8-16% in the 1990s and 2000s. But that alone can’t explain the decline in the number of babies being born.
Hayford noted that the number of unintended births, especially among people in their 20s, has declined in recent decades, which has helped reduce the birth rate.
“But that doesn’t change the fact that people aren’t having as many children as they say they want, especially at earlier ages,” Hayford said.
“It may be that they’re going to have those kids when they’re 35, but maybe they won’t.”
For example, the study found some evidence that people are reducing the number of children they say they intend to have as they get older.
“As they age, they may be realizing how hard it is to have kids and raise kids in the United States and they’re saying they only want to have the one child, and don’t want a second one,” she said.
In addition, would-be parents may have more difficulty conceiving as they get older.
Larger economic and social forces are also having an impact on birth rates.
The birth rate declined significantly during the Great Recession that started in 2008, which is a typical response to an economic downturn. However, the birth rate continued to decline even after the recession was over, Hayford said.
This study ended before Covid, but the pandemic served as another fertility shock, at least at first.
“It remains to be seen whether fertility will be able to rebound not just from the Great Recession, but from the pandemic as well,” she said.
For those who are concerned about America’s dropping birth rates, this study suggests that there is no need to pressure young people into wanting more kids, Hayford said.
“We need to make it easier for people to have the children that they want to have,” she said. “There are clear barriers to having children in the United States that revolve around economics, around child care, around health insurance.”
The research was supported by grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
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