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For many parents or would-be parents, the “right time” to have a child may feel increasingly out of reach

Birth rates are falling in the United States, but it isn’t because Americans say they want fewer kids.

In fact, young Americans haven’t changed the number of children they intend to have in decades.

Women born in 1995-1999 wanted to have 2.1 children on average when they were 20-24 years old – essentially the same as the 2.2 children that women born in 1965-1969 wanted at the same age, according to new research published January 10 in Population and Development Review by researchers at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The Ohio State University.

So what’s going on?

The results suggest that today’s young adults may be having a more difficult time achieving their goals of having children, said Sarah Hayford, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

The data in the study can’t explain why, but the results fit evidence indicating that young people today don’t think now is a good time for them to have children.

“It’s hard to have children in the United States right now,” said Hayford, who is also director of Ohio State’s Institute for Population Research.

“People feel more worried about the future than they might have been several decades ago.  They worry about the economy, child care and whether they can afford to have children.”

Hayford conducted the study with Karen Benjamin Guzzo, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Carolina Population Center.

Karen Guzzo
Karen Benjamin Guzzo

The researchers used data from the National Survey of Family Growth, which has been asking people about their childbearing goals and behaviors for several decades.

The NSFG doesn’t interview the same people each time, but it allowed the researchers to track a group of people born around the same time – a cohort, as scientists call these groups – as they passed through their childbearing years.

They looked at 13 cohorts of women and 10 cohorts of men born between the 1960s and the 2000s. They were all asked how many children they intended to have, if any.

“While there are fewer births in the US, this isn’t because people have, by and large, decided against having children,” Guzzo said. “The vast majority of both men and women intend to be parents, and they intend to have two children. This hasn’t changed much over time.”

Why are fewer people planning to have kids?

The percentage of people who said they don’t plan to have any children has increased, from about 5-8% in the 1960s and 1970s to 8-16% in the 1990s and 2000s.  But that alone can’t explain the decline in the number of babies being born.

Hayford noted that the number of unintended births, especially among people in their 20s, has declined in recent decades, which has helped reduce the birth rate.

“But that doesn’t change the fact that people aren’t having as many children as they say they want, especially at earlier ages,” Hayford said. “It may be that they’re going to have those kids when they’re 35, but maybe they won’t.”

For example, the study found some evidence that people are reducing the number of children they say they intend to have as they get older.

“As they age, they may be realizing how hard it is to have kids and raise kids in the United States and they’re saying they only want to have the one child, and don’t want a second one,” she said.

In addition, would-be parents may have more difficult conceiving as they get older.

Larger economic and social forces are also having an impact on birth rates.

The birth rate declined significantly during the Great Recession that started in 2008, which is a typical response to an economic downturn. However, the birth rate continued to decline even after the recession was over, Hayford said.

This study ended before COVID-19, but the pandemic served as another fertility shock, at least at first. And there are other reasons likely keeping people from their target family size.

“Given that most people say they intend to have kids, the fact that people aren’t actually having children means there’s probably some larger factors at play,” said Guzzo.  “There is not a lot of support for parents in the U.S., and young adults face a lot of challenges – student loan debt, the high cost of housing, job insecurity – that may lead them to delay, or maybe even give up on, having children.”

The research was supported by grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

This piece was adapted from a piece published by Ohio State News.