- American births are declining, and it’s partly because some millennials are deciding kids aren’t worth it.
- The economy since 2008, lack of affordable childcare, and pandemic-era lifestyle changes are adding up.
- Millennial women are also finding life fulfillment outside of having children.
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The summer after I graduated college, I was cleaning out boxes in my childhood bedroom when I stumbled across an old journal.
Inside was a timeline written in chicken scratch: Marriage at age 20, with a child every two years for eight years, to be completed by age 30. I laughed as I thought to myself, “In today’s economy?”
I flipped the journal over to see the date: 1997. At age 6, only familiar with the societal standards I had grown up with, this was how I envisioned my future. Fifteen years later, I was thankful I had forgotten about this path.
I can’t help but recall that as I see the story of the pandemic baby bust swirling around the Internet. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dropped a new report that revealed the US birth rate had fallen by 4%, the sharpest single-year decline in nearly 50 years and the lowest number of births since 1979.
The total fertility rate – or the number of live births a woman is expected to have over her lifetime – also fell from 2.12 in 2007 to 1.64 in 2020. In 1960, it was 3.65.
Whether this results in a delayed baby boom or fewer babies overall is a giant question mark. Left-leaning think tank Brookings thinks it’s unlikely the fertility rate will bounce back.
But it’s clear now that fertility peaked in 2007, before declining in 2008 when the Great Recession hit and accelerating its slump when the pandemic hit. Various factors explain this, from increased contraception to fear of bringing a child into a world with climate change, but chief among them is an expensive economy without affordable childcare that coincides with decades of progress for professional women.
In the 20-plus years that have passed since I wrote my journal entry, millennial women, who are now in their prime childbearing years, have normalized the idea of choice in a society that expects them to fulfill a role their body has seemingly attached them to.
They’ve realized having kids comes at a cost in either money or opportunity. And some have decided that cost isn’t worth it.
Not in this economy
America is in the midst of a childcare affordability crisis. Raising a child to age 18 in America will cost parents an average of $230,000, with most of those costs in the first few years of the child’s life.
The pandemic has revealed just how broken the childcare system is. Of the 1.1 million people who left the workforce last September, over 800,000 were women.
National childcare costs average between $9,000 and $9,600 annually, per advocacy organization Child Care Aware. That’s unaffordable for 63% of full-time working parents in the US. Should a parent choose to leave the workforce, per research from left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, they risk losing up to three to four times their salary in lifetime earnings for every year they miss.
It’s only one plank of a huge affordability crisis confronting millennials, who were still dealing with the lingering effects of the Great Recession when the pandemic hit, while juggling soaring costs for things like housing and healthcare, and often also the burden of student debt.
It’s no wonder that finances are one of the top reasons American millennials aren’t having kids or are having fewer kids than they considered ideal.
As a coworker said over Slack when I mentioned I was writing this article, “Who could blame anyone for not having kids? Millennials suffer through two recessions, including one during a pandemic, and finally start cobbling wealth together and are expected to incur the biggest lifetime expense anyone will ever face? Shouldn’t be a tough ‘would you rather.'”
A new world of opportunities
But women are also gaining something from this huge change in lifestyle: economic progress.
“It’s about women having access to education and employment opportunities,” Christine Percheski, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, told me a couple of months ago. “It’s about the rise in individualism. It’s about the rise in women’s autonomy and a change in values.”
Trends in the 21st-century economy – especially the rise of dating apps – have combined with a higher level of education for women to push marriage and childbearing so far off that it sometimes never materializes. Millennial women are about four times as likely as women from the Silent generation to have completed as much education at the same age.
Educated women have developed higher expectations for men, resulting in a shrinking dating pool. There are only 77 men for every 100 women among never-married young adults with a post-graduate degree, Vincent Harinam wrote for Quillette, citing Pew Research data.
And the more educated a woman gets, the more likely she is to postpone having a child until her 30s. While that’s partly explained by student debt, it’s also because women today have more life options than women did 50 years ago.
A 2018 study from the Institute for Family Studies found married mothers were less happy than married women without kids, something millennial women may be realizing.
There are simply new paths for fulfillment, like building a professional life. “Women want to have careers now before they settle down, people want to feel as though they’re financially secure,” Clare Mehta, an associate professor of psychology at Emmanuel College who studies established adults, previously told me. “That wasn’t happening in the past.”
This all means that the opportunity cost of children has increased. Women are not only having kids later in fear of derailing progress elsewhere first, but they often end up having fewer kids overall so as not to sacrifice other desires.
During this time, I’ve noticed friends and acquaintances speaking up about how they felt lucky to be childless. It was the latest in an ongoing dialogue that has been destigmatizing not having kids. The Guardian recently explored the choice of a child-free life in an essay series, and some mothers have even shared regrets about having children.
As Gina Tomaine wrote for Philly Mag, millennials like to be unencumbered and their economic experiences have made them question what makes a successful, meaningful life.
“Maybe a full, rich life is one that’s overflowing with creativity, travel, exploration – all stuff that kids make more difficult,” she pondered.
A taboo turns into a norm
Now, I’ve also repeatedly heard from many parents that raising kids is the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done. Many millennial women still want to have children, and some want a handful at that.
But there are currently multiple opportunities for women to find fulfillment. For some, that looks like a life with children. For others, it looks like a life of travel or a big career. For others still, it’s a hybrid approach of children and other pursuits.
Consider how my 6-year-old vision of having four children has turned into (probably) having two at a much later age, also knowing that I would be just as happy being everyone’s favorite aunt if that doesn’t come to fruition.
Millennials have been paving this new standard for some time, but the pandemic was a turning point. During this time, no one has envied the parents struggling balancing childcare and work, and a near-apocalyptic year has also made us question the meaning of life. What we’ve found is that it’s too short and uncertain, and the social and economic structures that supported America in the past don’t exactly work today.