Oh, baby! Look how your ranks grow

Experts debate whether the recent rise in the birth rate will last, and if so, what the consequences will be

Make way for babies. The sound of lullabies and nursery rhymes is abroadin the land.

What culture watchers are calling a "fertility boom" has pushed US births to their highest level in almost 30 years. Women now average 2.1 children over a lifetime, according to a new government report. During most of the 1970s and 1980s, they gave birth to fewer than two children, on average.

As the pitter-patter of little feet echoes across the country, demographers, politicians, employers, and marketers are weighing the implications of this increase. Births topped the 4 million mark in 2000 for the first time in eight years.

Some of the growth stems from a prolonged economic boom. Immigration also plays a role: For Hispanic women, the total fertility rate is 3.1. Births to unmarried mothers, which account for more than one-third of all births, went up 3 percent in 2000, mostly among women in their 20s.

In addition, women in their 30s and 40s who had delayed childbearing are catching up. Equally significant, observers see a marked change in attitudes toward children and families among so-called Generation Xers, those in their 20s and early 30s. This could portend long-term changes in birth rates.

"Young professional women are saying very clearly that they want to have children," says Laraine Zappert, author of "Getting It Right," a book about working mothers. "There's far less embarrassment than there was five or 10 years ago about saying, 'I really want to have kids.' They're asking, 'How do I fit my career around having children?' as opposed to 'How do I fit children around my career?' "

Unlike baby boomers, who had been willing to postpone childbearing or make family sacrifices for careers, Gen-X women expect to achieve success without making the same domestic trade-offs, says J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Partners, a market research firm.

Higher birth rates inevitably trigger speculation that women are going to leave their jobs. But workplace consultants insist that this will not happen.

"Despite the fact that we all know somebody who left the workplace, the statistical reality is that working mothers are here to stay," says Arlene Johnson of WFD Consulting in Watertown, Mass. What women will do, she adds, is reduce their hours when their children are very young.

Ms. Johnson calls the rise in birth rates an important business issue. If the birth rate continues to increase, it will "shine the spotlight on any deficiencies in child care," Johnson says. It will also serve as a clarion call to create more high-quality part-timework. Typically, she notes, part-time positions involve some kind of underemployment.

Low-income mothers who need part-time work face an even greater challenge, Johnson says, because they often hold dead-end jobs with no benefits.

As employers accommodate a growing cadre of parents with infants and young children, Smith anticipates more flexible schedules and more at-home work.

"Baby-boom women fought the battle for day care, and for a way to be at the office and not have to worry about family priorities," he says. "Gen-Xers will have to fight the battle to work at home."

Marketers, too, will need to pay attention to the family-related needs of new Gen-X parents during the next decade. These new households are important, Smith notes, because couples buy such big-ticket items as houses and second cars.

Already these babies are good for the economy. In 2000, Americans spent $6 billion on baby equipment - cribs, high chairs, car seats, blankets, bottles. That marks an 11 percent jump from the previous year, according to the Washington-based Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. Similarly, a large retailer of maternity clothes reports that net sales in January increased 12 percent over the same month last year.

A stronger interest in family and children, reflected in higher birth rates, will also help to determine what issues policymakers must consider locally and nationally, and what shape communities take, Smith says.

Not everyone views the higher birth rate as progress. Negative Population Growth, a group advocating smaller families, notes that the United States has grown 13 percent in the past decade and 85 percent in the past 50 years. In addition to the strain such growth places on the nation's infrastructure and natural resources, the implications for education are particularly dire, says spokeswoman Alison Green.

"Schools are already struggling to meet basic educational challenges," she says. These include raising academic achievement levels and meeting the needs of growing numbers of non-English-speaking students.

Demographers caution that it is too soon to know whether the higher birth rate represents merely a temporary blip or the beginning of a long-term trend.

"We don't know how this will all pan out," says Stephanie Ventura, co-author of the report on birth rates from the National Center for Health Statistics. "It's very foolhardy to try to predict. We've had increases like this before, and then they just turn right around and go back down again."

Mark Mather, a policy analyst at the Population Reference Bureau, expects immigration to sustain relatively high fertility rates for some time. People who are coming to this country tend to have higher fertility rates than those who were born here, he explains.

Smith, of Yankelovich Partners, sees a continuing "fertility boom" ahead. He notes that Gen-Xers are having their first child much sooner than baby boomers did. He also predicts that they will have bigger families.

Over the years, his polling firm has repeatedly asked respondents whether having a child is an experience that every woman should have. In 1979, 45 percent of baby-boom women - less than half - agreed with that statement. When Yankelovich measured it most recently among Gen-X women, 68 percent, or more than two-thirds, agreed.

Some business ownerswith a finger to the wind also predict more births in the wake of last fall's terrorist attacks. Bob Hunter, president of Stork Avenue, an online birth-announcement company, has had a fourfold increase in catalog requests in the months following Sept. 11.

He even points to the names parents are choosing for babies as evidence of a return to a stronger sense of family. Mr. Hunter notes a shift toward more biblical, traditional names.

For boys, Jacob is overtaking the perennial favorite, Michael, in many states. For girls, Hannah is edging out Emily.

As bundles of pink and blue fill maternity wards, as strollers cluster on suburban sidewalks, and as parents learn to speak baby talk, he and others see positive effects.

"People have been waiting for the right reason to have a baby," Hunter says. "Having a child is an affirmation of life, affirmation of a couple's love for each other and for family. I think it's good news for the country."

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