Janna Weaver is proud she’s managed to keep her bamboo plant alive for more than a year. She’s not quite ready for a pet yet, and a child? “Definitely not anytime soon.”
“I want to know who I am before I bring someone else into the equation,” said Weaver, 25, who has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and moved with her boyfriend to Dallas in July. “The longer I wait and the more established I am, the more I'll be able to provide for the family.”
More U.S. millennial women, those born after 1980, are holding off on motherhood, which bodes well for their economic and social mobility and that of their future children, according to recent research. Odds are that lower U.S. birth rates are here to stay, even if some of the recession-induced decline reverses, said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Fewer teens than ever had babies last year – 26.6 per 1,000 women, down 57 percent since 1991, according to an August report from the Department of Health and Human Services that analyzed data back to 1940. For women 20 to 24 years old, the birth rate also reached a record low, a separate analysis showed, while a decline continued for those 25 to 29 years old.
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While a falling birth rate is viewed with alarm by some economists as a drag on growth, others see it as an educational and earnings boon to young women and their children.
“Women have a lot more choice than in the past about how many children to have and when to have them,” Sawhill said in an interview. “If more people were able to align their fertility with their own desires, we would have less child poverty, we would have more social mobility and we would have lower government costs for things like safety-net programs and supporting single parents. It’s a win-win scenario.”
For each year motherhood is delayed, career earnings increase by 9 percent, work experience by 6 percent and average wage rates by 3 percent, according to a 2011 paper by Amalia Miller, an associate professor of economics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Women who have college degrees and jobs in professional and managerial fields see the greatest gains, she found.
“Later first births allow women more time to invest in schooling, work experience and on-the-job training that will, on average, increase their lifetime wages,” Miller wrote in an e mail.
The children of those women also benefit, Sawhill found. Preventing unexpected births lifts a child’s lifetime income by $52,000, according to Brookings’ study released Thursday. College and high school graduation rates both increase, while the chances of the child becoming a teen parent or being convicted of a crime decline.
“Delaying childbearing until you’re ready to be a parent is not just about improving your own life, it’s about giving your children greater opportunities in life,” Sawhill said.
The mean age of mothers having their first child was 25.8 years in 2012, up from 21.4 years in 1970, a December report from the health and human services department showed. Meanwhile, the cost for a middle-income family to raise a child born last year to the age of 18 is $245,340, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While Weaver, who has been living with her boyfriend for a little over a year, does want children one day, she’d like to be more financially stable first, she said. She began a new job yesterday as a membership-sales consultant at Cooper Aerobics Center, which was founded by the man who coined the term for the exercise.
“I don’t want to have kids until I know I can start saving for them and making sure I can give them the same education and everything that I was given,” Weaver said.
The choice to postpone childbirth may already be showing up in jobs data. The difference in labor force participation rates between men and women 20 to 24 years old reached a record low at the end of last year, according to data from the Labor Department. The rate was at 66.9 percent in August for young women, compared with 73.8 percent for young men.
Reasons behind the delay in motherhood vary. For teens, birth rates have been falling since the late 1950s amid reduced sexual activity, increased use of contraception and more effective methods of birth control, according to the health and human services’ department’s report.
While the teen birth rate’s decline is “good news, it still remains higher than many other developed countries,” said Stephanie Ventura, senior demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland. “The U.S. still has a way to go, but it’s made tremendous progress.”
More recently, media influences, such as the MTV show “16 and Pregnant,” which depicts the struggles of expectant adolescents, as well as the severity of the recession contributed to the reduction in teen births, according to an analysis by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, research associates for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research.
The economic downturn’s impact probably extended beyond teens to delay childbearing among young women, Brookings’ Sawhill said. As companies slashed jobs, the unemployment rate soared to 10 percent and consumer confidence dropped to a record low, young adults held off on having children amid a lack of financial security.
As the economy improves there will probably be a recovery in birth rates, though such an increase will prove temporary as more women take advantage of the benefits that work and education can bring, said Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. “What we’re seeing is women adjusting their plans deliberately to have children later,” and have fewer offspring, he said.
There may be downsides to that, said Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays in New York. All else being equal, “declining fertility rates signal slower economic growth,” he said. “One of the inputs in economic growth is labor-supply growth, and if you have fewer people being born over the longer term, that’s going to be fewer workers and less growth.”
Even that is manageable, Cohen said. If policy makers “are willing to allow more immigration, we can fix the problem,” he said.
Women’s gains in education are already beginning to outpace those of men. By the age of 27, 32 percent of women have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 24 percent of men, according to a March report outlining the results of a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of people born in the early 1980s.
That boosts their potential earnings power, as young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned $46,900 in 2012, 57 percent more than those who completed high school, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show.
“The fact that millennial women’s college attainment has increased both in absolute terms and relative to men suggests that future trends for human-capital development, income growth and ultimately consumer spending are positive,” William Emmons, senior economic adviser at the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, wrote in an e-mail.
As households become increasingly dependent on female employment and earnings, U.S. fertility rates will probably continue to decline, said Mark Mather, associate vice president of domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. Employed married women’s earnings are now 44 percent of their families’ total, up from 37 percent in the 1970s, according to a presentation earlier this year from President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
“We’re seeing this big increase in women going to college and getting pretty good jobs and increasingly earning more than their husbands,” Mather said. “Along with that trend, there’s a bigger cost for women to have kids than there was in the past.”