Economist: Planned pregnancies win out over drifting into parenthood

In a new book "Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage," economist Isabel V. Sawhill sees a distinct advantage for parents who plan ahead and save before starting families.

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This image shows the popular board game 'Life' which challenges players to partner chance with strategy to win. Economist Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, claims that those who plan ahead before starting families offer distinct advantages to their children.

When it comes to pregnancy and childrearing, behavioral economist Isabel V. Sawhill sees a cultural divide between the planners and the drifters.

The senior fellow at the Brookings Institution argues in a new book, "Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage," that the act of not becoming pregnant until one is ready would save billions of dollars and help ensure that children are born into families with the means and motivation to care for them.

The book, from Brookings Institution Press, is out Thursday.

A conversation with Isabel V. Sawhill:

AP: The premise of your book seems to be that unplanned pregnancies and births are bad for the economy, bad for our culture? Is that what you're arguing?

Sawhill: I'm arguing more centrally that it's not good for children. Their life prospects are being undermined by too many young adults drifting into relationships, pregnancy, childbearing, rather than waiting until they're ready to be parents.

We may have always known that to be true but we have not been practicing it. Sixty percent of all births to young unmarried adults, I'm talking about people under the age of 30, are unplanned, unintended.

AP: On the one hand you support all the personal choices and freedoms we now have in terms of sex, contraception and forming families, but you then argue that drifting into parenthood is a bad idea. Can you explain that a little bit?

Sawhill: The children born under those circumstances are going to have constrained life chances, and it's going to be stressful for their parents as well, and it's often going to produce a single-parent family that is going to struggle both economically and in other ways.

I think that many single parents are doing a heroic job of raising children on their own. It's just a very hard thing to do. You have half as much time and often half as much money as you would have if you had joined forces with another person.

AP: Can you talk specifically about the impact on families, governments, schools, etc. from a high rate of pregnancies and births, not just among teens because as you noted the teen birth rate is going down, but among unmarried women in their 20s? When did that start happening?

Sawhill: The teen birth rate has come down dramatically, and the fact that we've had some success there makes me somewhat optimistic that we can have success with a slightly older group as well. But the problem of unplanned birth outside of marriage has shifted up the age scale. It's now a major problem amongst 20-somethings in the United States.

Over half of all births to women under 30 are outside of marriage and most of those births are unintended.

AP: Can you address why social policies to reduce what you call too-early unplanned births have been ignored or sidelined, and where that fits into what you describe as a "demographic tide of family breakdown."

Sawhill: We had a huge transformation in our society from one that was based primarily on the idea that if you had children you should have them within marriage. And that worked reasonably well. Now marriage seems to be disappearing because, among other things, much greater opportunities for women, their ability to support themselves and their desire for autonomy and their ability to achieve that autonomy.

They don't need marriage in the way they used to. That to me is the biggest factor, but there are some others, such as the fact that men, less skilled men in particular, are struggling in today's labor market, aren't doing as well and therefore have all kinds of problems and don't look terribly marriageable to the women that they might partner with.

AP: What do you see in the future in terms of our culture's default when it comes to marriage and having children?

Sawhill: There will likely be more and more people deciding not to have children, but I'm not arguing that that's what we should make the standard for the way an adult should live. Far from it.

The important thing is to make an explicit choice, not just drift into marriage and parenting - at any age.

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