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How Times Have Changed: Today’s Whys and Whens of Family and Fertility

July 19, 2018
Katie Visco

The United States’ General Fertility Rate, a number that measures births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, reached a record low since the last National Center for Health Statistics 2016 report. It dropped from 2015’s previous GFR of 62.5 to 62.0. Here’s something to think about: compare this rate with the Baby-Boomer generation’s in 1960—a whopping 118.0. These numbers have a lot to say about millennial values, career life, and advances in fertility science:

  • Women are having children later in life
  • Millennials hold off on starting families
  • Public opinion on assisted reproductive technologies
  • Good and not-so-good consequences of these changes

How Women Are Reshaping Demographics

More women are having children later in life now than at any other time in the 21st century. According to a National Center for Health Statistics report, birth rates for women in their early forties have risen 19% since 2007, 2% for women in their early thirties, and 11% for women in their late thirties. On the other hand, just looking at the differences in birth rates from 2015 to 2016, birth rates for women aged 20-24 went down 4%, and for women 25-29, 2%. Teen births have gone down an astonishing 51% since 2007 and 9% from 2015 to 2016.

Because teenage and early 20s pregnancies are proving to be less and less common, there is an overall fertility decrease despite the specific increase for the thirty and older category. Therefore, more women having children later is not enough to offset less women having children younger. The General Fertility Rate is still down so that we are not meeting the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman, and the decline in teen births and increase in first births in women over 30 is largely responsible for this.

Why are women waiting to have children? For one, there is a greater emphasis on education and career goals for women. Slate Magazine gives some insight into this: “The social permission to delay marriage and childbirth—as well the as the biological ability to do so, first through the use of reliable birth control, now with the help of the booming fertility industry—has given women the freedom to define themselves through means other than motherhood.” As of Today, the average age of a mother is 26.3. Compare this to 1970 when it was 21.4 and women would jump from high school education to marriage to motherhood in three quick strides.

The fact that more women in their thirties and even forties are having children is encouraging. The general view of a woman’s body as a “ticking time bomb,” of sorts, with women having a short period of time where conception was not only safe and healthy for herself and the baby, but also socially acceptable, is not as prevalent.

discussion

Finally, there is an increased tendency for women to never have married by the time they reach the end of their childbearing years (usually around 44). The Pew Research Center reported that 9% of women in 1994 reached the end of their childbearing years without ever having married. In 2014, that number rose to 15%. More importantly, though, the majority of these women—55%—have had at least one child compared to the 31% statistic of 1994. This trend suggests that marriage and having a lifetime partner weigh in less on desires to become pregnant and be a mother; women are viewing motherhood as more of an independent choice, and here, especially, do advancements in fertility science make this possible.

It seems that in order to accomplish their degrees and acquire the jobs they want, women are holding off on having children till they feel they have reached the stability in their professional lives that they desire. Now, with many women liberated socially and empowered to achieve their career goals, motherhood can be temporarily put on hold.

Millennials Holding off on Families

Though the only generation designated by the US Census Bureau is the baby-boomer generation, the Pew Research Foundation recently established that millennials are those born from 1981 to 1996. So the women who are having children in their thirties forties are millennials, according to this definition, and so are the women in their twenties among whom the birth rate has decreased. Husbands of these women are also waiting with them. From another angle, then, is there something unique to the millennial mentality that impels them to hold off on having children?

Millennials are a passionate, professionally driven, innovative generation. Many graduated college in the midst of the 2008 economic recession—what economists call the worst recession since the Great Depression—so that they have become economically savvy and used to challenges. Perhaps their decision to make life and family-planning choices later than the generations before them is their way of dealing with the economic and employment challenges they faced.

time magazine

A Star Tribune article discussing millennials and economic recessions explained that “like the early millennials, the recessionists had been raised to follow their dreams, but the advice they had been given all their lives began to ring hollow.”

Interestingly, the article also noted that millennials who graduated college and had to struggle for a job during the recession might not have ever fully recovered financially from that disadvantage, as economists at the Federal Reserve find that lifetime earnings heavily depend on what individuals make their first decade in the workforce. If this is the case, then there is less impetus even after the economy recovered from the 2008 recession for millennials to have many children, as there’s is a possibility that they are still recovering even today.

A report from Negative Population Growth Inc. points to millennials as the cause for the United States’ inability to meet its replacement rate, reporting that birth rate for women under thirty has fallen to a record low. But this is not necessarily a surprise to sociologists—millennials were born during a huge economic recession, having seen their parents lose jobs, homes, and work through the stresses of economic instability. Millennials are savvy enough to make family planning decisions that align with the economic stability necessary to avoid the problems that their parents faced during the recession. Even if this means getting married later or delaying the purchase of their first homes, millennials are taking caution.

couples taking a selfie

Public Consensus on Fertility Advancements

According to a CDC study that spanned from 1996 to 2014 on assisted reproductive technology, a total of 20,597 infants were born from 64,036 ART procedures while in 2014, that number tripled. Clearly, then, fertility science and acceptance of it are on the rise.

This is not surprising considering that as women and couples choose to have children later on in their lives, their views and interests in assisted reproductive technologies are also changing. Career-driven women are empowered by technological and medical advancements so that there is greater public confidence in medical technology.

In a Yale study analyzing survey results of almost 5,000 women ages 25-45, 90% of career-focused women who valued pregnancy planning said they felt confident that medical advancements made conceiving in their late 30s feasible. The study also found that women who place more importance on their careers are more likely to utilize pregnancy planning than women who are less serious about their career goals. What this says about our society: many women are able to experience the best of both worlds—an intense career and motherhood —now that fertility treatments are seen as a viable option for women not in a rush to start a family.

However, in response to the results, the Yale study stressed the need to educate women who were banking on fertility advancements: “Our results suggest that reproductive counseling for career-focused women should focus on effective contraception when attempting to delay pregnancy, improved knowledge about age-related fertility decline, and the scope and limitations of current reproductive technologies.” In other words, women should also be aware of the limitations of ART so not to have a false sense of confidence, as IVF success rates do decline with age, especially after the age of 35.

Consequences

One of the most obvious concerns relating to an inability to meet the population’s replacement rate is economic. Even though women are having children later in life in their thirties and forties than in the past, it is still not enough to make up for the drop in births from younger women. As a result, there might not be enough workers to sustain the economy. Also, as lifespan increases, retirees are living longer so that they slow their spending while in retirement. Less spending means less driving the economy.  

However, there are other opinions on the issue. The organization Negative Population Growth (NPG) forum paper, “How Millennials are Slowing U.S. Population Growth and Enhancing Sustainability” explained positive consequences of the so-called “baby bust”. If population decreases along with consumption, the United States could achieve a sustainable economy “in which the utilization of scarce resources equals the ability of our eco-system to replenish those resources.” In other words, our inability to meet our replacement rate could turn out to be a good thing.

In particular, the NPG noted that fewer children means that families can invest more into their children—more education, in particular, and as a result, a possible increase in their productivity as an individual. They noted that in this case, “While GDP may slow, a better measure of the country’s economic health—GDP per capita—can benefit.”

father and son

From another angle, older mothers could also be more likely to be better educated and to have utilized better planning when it comes to family and work-life balance by the time they have children. In particular, if couples are seeking out and utilizing ART, then they have clearly put significant thought into why they want a family, the timing of creating a family, and how they will rear their children considering the financial cost of fertility procedures. There are no surprises.

Women who are waiting till their 30s to have babies are more likely to have the advantage when compared to a younger mother. These  “advanced maternal mothers”, mothers ages 30 and older, are more likely to have the resources to better equip themselves, and the baby. According to Dr. Alice Goisis, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science, these mothers are more likely to take care themselves during pregnancy; being less likely to smoke, and more likely to breastfeed.

The International Journal of Epidemiology published a study that looked at the cognitive abilities of children born to mother around age 35-39 using data from the 2000–2002 Millennium Cohort Study. They found that in this cohort, maternal ages 35-39 were positively associated with cognitive ability compared to children born to mothers ages 25-29. This could be due to changes in parenting attitudes, changes in education or socioeconomic levels, and better family support.

“The mothers have more psychological flexibility, more cognitive flexibility, more ability to tolerate complex emotional stimuli from the children” said Tea Trillingsgaard, psychology professor at Aarhus University in Denmark.

mother and son

To sum it up, the American lifestyle and family has changed significantly in the past few decades, especially when it comes to how long people wait to start a family, if and when they get married, and their ideas on how socially acceptable it is to have children later in life. Though there are some economic risks to these changes, there is also the capacity for many positive consequences, and advances in assisted reproductive technology move alongside these changes by offering more flexibility in family planning than ever before.

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