Why more millennials are choosing to be childless

Births among American women aged 20 to 29 are at 'the slowest pace of any generation of young women in US history,' says a new study by the Urban Institute. What's behind the decline? 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Peyton, 6 1/2 months, is held by his mother, Chanelle Moragne, a stay at home mom, at an indoor play spaced, the Peekaboo Playroom, on Feb. 24, 2015. A new study by the Urban Institute think tank has found that for a growing number of women in their 20s, kids are not part of the picture.

For a growing number of women in their 20s, kids are not part of the picture.

That’s according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank whose new report is the latest to highlight a change in values among today’s young adults, as a weak economy and shifting goals and opportunities encourage women to push starting a family lower on their list of priorities.

“Although birth rates in the United States had been fairly stable for more than three decades, beginning in 2008 they began to fall, especially for women in their twenties,” the report’s authors wrote.

In 2012, there were only 948 births per 1,000 American women aged 20 to 29, “by far the slowest pace of any generation of young women in US history,” according to the researchers. In 2007, the figure was at 1,118 births per 1,000.

The decline cuts across races and ethnicities, showing a 26 percent drop off among Hispanic women, a 14 percent fall among black women, and 11 percent decline among white women.

The Institute’s findings support other studies. For instance, Stewart Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, reported that in 2012 only 42 percent of graduating students at his school were planning to have children – down by 36 percentage points from 1992.

Millennials are also less likely to tie the knot, with only 26 percent of Americans aged 18 to 32 married as of 2013, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Part of the shift is attributed to the challenge of financial instability. As CNBC reported last year:

Even as the economy improves, years of economic malaise have left many millennials unemployed, underemployed or just lower on the career ladder than they had hoped to be at this age. Many are burdened by debt, unable to afford a house and too consumed by uncertainty to meet all the adult milestones yet.

But it’s not just about finding and keeping jobs. Women’s goals are also changing as the push for gender equality opens more employment doors for them outside of the family.

“Fewer women in the class of 2012 planned to have children because they did not equate a meaningful life with motherhood,” mom and author Nanette Fondas wrote of Mr. Friedman’s study, according to The Huffington Post. She added:

These Millennial women expressed motivation to help others and solve social problems, but the desired route was through business, corporate social responsibility, and social impact organizations. ...They recognized the need for children to spend time with parents and worried this would limit their ability to make a difference in the world through work.

While it may be too soon to gauge the trend’s impact in the US, similar changes that have occurred in other countries could give a glimpse of what’s to come.

Japan, which has experienced a continuous population slump due to declining birth rates, is facing a shrinking gross domestic product that could significantly affect the country’s social welfare system. The phenomenon known as “the graying of Europe” promises similar consequences, which add to the continent’s already debilitating debt crisis.

The US population growth rate is still net positive, although it has slowed to the lowest level since 1937. Most of the slow down is attributed to lower immigration levels. 

But the possibility of the US population growth to slow to European or Japanese levels could prompt calls for change in America’s social and economic institutions, so that people who want to become parents can see a path to doing so, according to The New York Times.

At the same time, millennials have plenty of time to change their minds about having children, as advances in technology and medicine allow women to get pregnant and give birth at later stages in their lives.

Immigration also plays a key role in population growth or decline – an issue that the researchers behind the Urban Institute report only touched on when they noted that the Great Recession slowed the flow of new immigrants, who tend to have higher birth rates than natives or less recent immigrants.

Still, a declining population may not be all bad, particularly in terms of shared resources.

“The number of people on the planet – and the amount of the stuff they use – is the basic multiplier for nearly all environmental woes, from deforestation to climate change,” Time foreign editor Bryan Walsh wrote. “So maybe a world that grows slower – and grows older – will put less pressure on the environment, and buy us a few more years to ensure that our energy use, along with our birthrates, reaches a sustainable level.”

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