Fertility is probably on my mind right now because I’m 39 weeks pregnant and waiting for my baby to arrive. I feel incredibly blessed: This will be our fourth child.
In recent polling, young Americans’ preferences indicate a desire for more children. Gallup’s headline is “Americans’ Preference for Larger Families Highest Since 1971.” Only 2% of people say the ideal family includes zero children; only 3% say the ideal number of kids is one. Most people say two children (44%), three children (29%), or four children (12%) is ideal.
The big takeaway is that there’s a mismatch between people’s desires and their behaviors. People say they want to get married and have kids just as much as previous generations, but the reality is that there are more Americans today who will never marry or have kids. While the implications for lower fertility rates are wide-reaching (including obvious economic implications for government budgets, schools, health care, real estate, etc.) people have disagreed about whether declining fertility rates were really a problem. I fall in the camp that says falling fertility does present a serious problem, primarily because people are not reaching their own stated fertility goals, or in other words, there’s a lot of heartbreak and grief around this topic for many people. And a world with fewer children is a world with less joy! It’s sad to see fertility declining, but it’s hopeful to think about how many people still desire children. The desire is still there.
We cannot and should not separate the discussion about marriage from the discussion about fertility. These things are inextricably linked. Sociologists have considered many reasons for the collapse of fertility, which is not just an American issue but really a global one. Some say it’s economic or related to other factors, like the greater availability of birth control, but the number one most important factor in fertility today is marriage. Married couples produce more children and offer the best environment for children. The bottom line here: our fertility crisis is downstream of our marriage crisis.
Decreases in fertility have come in two big waves. First, between 1976 and the mid-1990s, average family size decreased a lot. The average mom had more than three kids in the 1970s. By the mid-90s, that number was down to 2.4, and it’s stayed about at that rate for the past two decades. But importantly, 2.4 children is the fertility rate among mothers. What we have witnessed more recently is huge growth in the number of women who will never become mothers in the first place. The overall fertility rate is 1.7, which is below what is needed to replace the current population. America has only been avoiding a population bust because we welcome about 1 million immigrants per year. But this approach is not sustainable either, as declines in fertility are global, not just here in the U.S.
Social norms certainly play a part when it comes to marriage, fertility, and parenting. While social norms can be oppressive or make some people feel left out, they certainly affect behavior. A Gallup analysis of the fertility issue points to changing social norms as one of the trends leading to fewer births. Today, we have more acceptance toward various family structures, or more of an “anything goes” mentality, whereas, in the past, it was more of an expectation that people married (in heterosexual marriages) and stayed married and had multiple kids. Today we also face a “paradox of choice” when it comes to marriage partners, which is particularly evident in the world of online dating. These social trends may be liberating for some people, but they can also be confusing and difficult to navigate for others.
Furthermore, I believe we have experienced a change in social norms when it comes to parenting expectations, particularly among people who are middle class and above. It was not always an expectation that every child has his or her own bedroom or that parents pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in college tuition. It was not always expected that kids participate in so many after-school activities or that parents stay involved with the care and oversight of their children. People may rightly criticize “helicopter parenting” but today’s parents are doing this in response to social norms and expectations, not because they particularly want to. These newer expectations naturally feel oppressive to parents and make parenthood look (and sometimes feel) like a drag—when it’s really a great blessing!
My heart hurts for the many people who desire to have children, but worry that they may not. I discussed this topic on the Fox Business show Making Money with host Charles Payne, and shared my perspective. Time will tell if the next generation will reverse the trend of falling birth rates. My hope is that we can work toward encouraging this natural desire in young people and building social norms and public policies that support marriage and family life.