Parenthood has been and remains both an ongoing reality and the most pivotal experience of my life. Other people have told me the same, both mothers and fathers. Parenthood changes people from the moment a little one arrives, and the job never ends until the parent draws that final breath. Even then, the parent’s mark remains on the offspring, however old they may be.
Demographic trends are facts, neither good nor bad, but indications of what is going on in a society. Demographers have told us that in the United States, millennials, mostly children of baby boomers, have surpassed boomers in sheer numbers, but that millennials are not having as many children as their parents did. What we have not known as clearly is why.
The New York Times recently commissioned a survey to explore that why, with interesting results. Demographers had posited that economic worries were keeping our national birthrate down, but it remains at a record low for the second straight year, despite economic gains. It turns out that economic uncertainty is a big part of the picture, but not the whole picture.
People who are having fewer children than they might have wanted cited the high cost of child care, but they also want more leisure time and more time with the children they do have. They also worry about domestic politics, climate change and issues with their partners. Thirteen percent are honest enough to say do not think they would be good parents.
People who say they want no children at all say leisure time is the most important factor to them, along with economic, political and global concerns. They also cite career importance and concern about being good parents. Some say simply they have no desire to be parents.
What is so striking about the survey is that it would not have been given to prior generations of Americans because, for most of human history, people – specifically women – have had little or no choice about becoming parents. It is easy to forget that baby boomers are the first generation ever to have had reliable choices about parenthood with government approval of “The Pill” in 1960. It was not perfect and there were negative side effects, but it worked, and women flocked to it. That was fewer than 70 years ago, a long time for an individual life, but a mere blip in demographic history.
Parenthood, and specifically motherhood, is now a choice, and women are treating it that way for all sorts of reasons. The burdens of childcare and home responsibility continue to rest more heavily on mothers than on fathers. In addition, childrearing can interrupt a woman’s career or professional life, resulting in an earnings penalty on motherhood.
As women have pushed for gender equality in the workplace and throughout our culture, fertility rates have declined, a fact not unnoticed by social scientists. The Times quotes Philip Cohen at the University of Maryland, who studies and writes about family issues. Cohen noted succinctly, “There is no getting around the fact that the relationship between gender equality and fertility is very strong: There are not high-fertility countries that are gender equal.”
The U.S. is now easing into the club of industrialized nations, many in Europe, with fertility rates below replacement levels with only 60.2 children born to every 1,000 American women. Millennial preferences and uncertainties are not the only reason. We also have declining unintended pregnancy rates and higher rates of long-acting contraception methods, such as IUDs.
At the same time, it remains true that most American women will have children. As economist Oliver Thevenon said in the Times, “Whether the young generation will catch up later is not certain, but will depend on their capacity to combine work and family.”
So far, millennials seem to be having trouble with that.
PHOTO: Photo by Brittany Simuangco on Unsplash.