Posted on March 26, 2018

American Women Are Having Fewer Children Than They’d Like

Lyman Stone, New York Times, February 13, 2018


The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reflecting births as of the year ending in September 2017, shows the total fertility rate at 1.77 lifetime births per woman, down 3.8 percent since 2015, and down 16.4 percent since its most recent peak at 2.12 in 2007. (The replacement rate in developed countries is around 2.1.)


{snip} The key factors driving down the birthrate are not mysterious: The pregnancy rate among young women is falling, and has been for years.

But what began as sharp declines in pregnancy and childbearing among teenagers — typically considered a socially desirable result — has slowly spread up the age cohorts, first to women in their early 20s, then to those in their late 20s. And now fertility decline has set in for women even in their 30s. {snip}

A key factor is that marriage is increasingly being postponed. Total fertility rates controlling for marital status have not changed very much over the last 15 years. But with marriage coming later, the share of women at peak childbearing ages (20 to 40) who are married has steadily fallen.

{snip} Today, the average age of a woman at first birth is over 26 years old. And while that is much higher than in the past, many European countries have an average age of first birth over 30, so there seems a lot more room to rise. In fact, the United States has the youngest age of first childbirth of any developed country.

Beyond delayed marriage, unmarried births are falling, too. Wider usage of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) is especially helping unmarried women avoid unintended pregnancy (from 1.5 percent LARC usage in 2002 to 7.2 percent in 2011-2013).

And the increasing availability and usage of emergency contraceptives (which some consider to be abortions but are not counted in official abortion statistics) further reduces the likelihood of implantation (from 1 percent emergency contraceptive usage in 1995 to 11 percent in 2006-2010).


Meanwhile, the share of the childless population assisting in parenting and child care is in steady decline. (The data show that many parents are overwhelmed, and assists from friends and family can be helpful.) Americans are improving their ability to avoid unwanted pregnancies far faster than they are improving the ability to achieve desired pregnancy.

As a result, the gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years. (From 1972 to 2016, men have expressed almost exactly the same ideal fertility rates as women: In a given year, they average just 0.04 children below what women say is ideal.)


Data from the General Social Survey shows that the share of people 18 to 30 who have not had sex in the past year has risen to nearly 20 percent today, from about 10 percent between 1990 and 2010, while the share having sex at least two times a month has fallen to about 65 percent, from about 75 percent from 1990 to 2010.

Diminished face-to-face interaction, and possibly increased use of pornography, may explain the fall in sex, and both of those trends may be explained by the rise in cellphone usage and other screen time.

Smartphone ownership rates have more than doubled for every age group in America since 2010, meaning that almost all of us now carry a get-out-of-human-interaction-free card in our pockets 24/7.


As millennials slowly begin to transition toward marriage and homeownership, children may come, too. But it’s unlikely any future baby boom will be able to fully offset the baby bust of the last 10 years. Many will cheer this development, pointing to overpopulation and the stress put on the environment. But very real problems could develop from lower fertility that many might not see coming, like difficulty meeting Social Security obligations, caring for older people and maintaining economic growth.

Regardless of your view, millennial women are likely to experience the largest shortfall in achieved fertility versus their stated family desires of any generation in a long time, unless something changes soon.

[Editor’s Note: Other graphs and a map are included with the original story.]

[Click on the graph to enlarge it.]