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The world's population continues to grow at an exponentially increasing rate, and it's only a matter of time before eight billion humans call Earth home. While this is going on worldwide, several developed countries have been experiencing declining birth rates over the past 15 years. 20 percent of women in the world today are childless, compared to just 10 percent in the 1970s. In particular, American women ages 15-39 have experienced an especially marked drop in fertility. So why are fewer couples having kids today compared to fifty years ago?
This trend of lower birth rates among American women began a couple decades ago with a push toward reducing instances of teenage pregnancy. In modern society, a reduced rate of childbearing teens—especially those still in high school—is generally considered a good thing. This trend, however, has slowly spread to other age groups. The fertility rate of women ages 20-24 peaked in 2007 and has been steadily dropping ever since. Women in the 25-29 age bracket were once the group with the highest percentage of new mothers, with nearly 12 percent of women in their late twenties giving birth in 2008. By 2017, that number dropped to below ten percent. A two-percent difference may seem insignificant, but it has large-scale consequences, especially with birth rates decreasing in every other age bracket as well.
The fertility rate of women in their thirties has been mostly consistent over the past 15 years, but both the 30-34 and the 35-39 age brackets are now in the midst of downward trends as well. Women in their lower thirties have surpassed women in their later twenties as the most fertile age group, but birth rates in both groups are steadily declining. One interesting statistic is that women ages 40-44 have shown a shallow increase in their fertility rate. Considered by most to be at the end of their childbearing years, women over 40 represent the last generation of women having more children than their mothers.
This data helps paint a picture of how fewer couples are having kids, but it doesn't really help us understand why. The answer to the question "why are fewer couples having kids?" is partially up to conjecture, but a couple key figures can help us understand why birth rates are declining among millennials and other young generations.
If you control the data to account for marriage, the fertility rate among married women is more or less the same as it was 15 years ago. In other words, married couples are having kids as often as they ever were, but the recent decline in birth rates among younger women correlates to the fact that more and more women aren't getting married until later in life. So instead of "why are fewer couples having kids," a better question might be "why are fewer young people getting married?"
Millennials have an interesting relationship with marriage. While more than two thirds of the generation are married or wanting to marry, there has been a shift in how long American couples are waiting before tying the knot. The median age for first marriage is now 28, up from 21 in the 1960s. While millennials are relatively comfortable with the idea of having children before marriage, it is still far more common for couples to get married before having kids. In other words, if we assume couples are remaining childless until marriage, then most women aren't even trying to have children until they're almost in their thirties. But at least they have more time to take the necessary steps towards planning for pregnancy if/when they're ready.
There is a multitude of reasons behind every couple's decisions whether or not to get married and whether or not to have children. For Millennials, however, one word can sum up the majority of their reservations in family planning: money. In a recent New York Times survey, nearly half of respondents said they were worried about the economy or general financial instability. A full third of respondents in the survey said they weren't having kids because they already struggled with their work-life balance. Most tellingly, 64 percent of the young American women surveyed believe child care is simply too expensive. One saddening aspect of this phenomenon is that this decline in birth rates isn't necessarily because fewer couples want children. Many, if not most, of those 64 percent have or are expecting to have fewer children than they want because they're worried about being able to afford the care that children need.
Becoming a parent is incredibly expensive, and with rising costs of everything from gas to eggs, it can take a long time to learn how to save money as new parents. All told, it can cost over $1 million to raise just one child. Medical technologies such as in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination mean its easier than ever to overcome the physical obstacles to becoming a parent, but these technologies can cost thousands of dollars, adding to the already exorbitant cost of having and raising children. Millennials are all too aware of this high cost, and it is one of the main reasons many young couples are remaining childless.
A vast number of factors can contribute to explaining why Millennials are experiencing more financial instability than previous generations, from various recessions to the housing market crash, but more than anything else, Millennials are slave to the insurmountable burden of student loans. Student loan debt affects over 44 million American adults to the tune of $1.5 trillion, and 70 percent of college students graduating this year will do so with some amount of loans to pay back. There are even a fair number of celebrities with student loan debt, so the problem is clearly extending to all walks of life. These ingredients add up to a raw deal for the younger generation of Americans who, through little fault of their own, simply can't afford to build a family.
"Why are fewer couples having kids?" is a relatively straightforward question, so it's a shame that the answer is much more complicated. While the surveys and figures show some compelling evidence, each and every couple in the United States has a different reason for why they are or aren't having kids. It's easy to see, however, that money is one of the biggest reasons why so many young couples are indefinitely postponing marriage and children. As more Millennial couples reach their thirties and, before long, forties, more successful careers and homeownership may lead to a rise in birth rates among them. The current downward trend in the fertility rate of American women, however, may hold serious consequences for the future.