Births Keep Falling, But Americans Still Want the Same Number of Kids
Even as U.S. fertility rates have declined, the number of children that Americans intend to have has held steady since the 1960s. In fact, Millennials born in the late 1980s wanted the same number of children in their early 20s as young adults who were born back when JFK was president.
It’s the perennial question about falling fertility rates. Are Americans having fewer children because they’re less likely to want kids, or because life circumstances prevent them from having as many kids as they want?
Longtime NewsWire readers know which position I take: the latter. While the share of young people who do not want any children has indeed risen somewhat, various studies have found that Americans’ desired number of kids has remained relatively stable even as birthrates have declined substantially. (See “Are Most Childless Adults Childless by Choice?”, “How Do Americans Feel About Having Kids?” and “So Much for the ‘Tempo Effect.’”)
This new study, which is from researchers at Ohio State University and UNC Chapel Hill, reinforces this conclusion. But it offers a detailed perspective that is missing from earlier studies.
The study analyzes how Americans’ childbearing plans have changed over the past few decades. It surveys women and men born from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Given that people’s feelings about having children tend to change as they grow older, the researchers examine both attitudes by cohort (comparing different birth cohorts at the same age) and across the life course (comparing the same birth cohort across different ages).
Their first conclusion is that birth intentions always tend to follow a similar age trajectory. As people move from their late teens into their early 20s, they get more serious about family life and their average intended number of children creeps up. In their 30s and 40s, some may reconcile themselves to never having the children they wanted and their average number declines again. This pattern hasn’t really changed over time.