Millennials: Too Realistic to Have Children?

Long work hours, heavy student debt, job and career stress, anticipated work-family conflict and health and social tradeoffs all weighed into the decision to plan or not to plan to have babies.
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The birth rate in the U.S. fell to another record low, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control. In 2012, births per 1,000 women 15 to 44 years old fell to 63 from 63.2 in 2011. That's a slight drop, but it marks five straight years of decline, including a drop of nearly three percent per year from 2007 through 2010. Though the birth rate has been declining since the post-World War II baby boom ended, it fell faster as the economy stalled during the Great Recession: fewer jobs meant more postponed weddings and babies.

With the economy recovering, some thought 2012 would reverse the trend, but instead, the baby bust continues. In addition to job insecurity, culprits include heavy debt from college loans, large numbers of women working outside the home, better access to contraception, marriage delays for non-economic reasons and the rising cost of raising children.

A new book by Professor Stewart Friedman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania sheds even more light on why the birth rate is down despite an improved economy. In Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, Friedman reports the results of his survey of the 496 undergraduate students of Wharton before they departed in 1992 and again 20 years later. He also surveyed the 307 recent graduates of the class of 2012. By comparing the two cohorts, he uncovers why today's young professionals are hesitating to jump into parenthood. By comparing women and men, he finds shifts in priorities and gender roles.

Baby Bust reports that Millennials are stepping into life after graduation from college with their "eyes wide open" to the difficulty of integrating paid work and parenting. Compared with their 2002 counterparts, the 2012 grads appreciate the potentially irresolvable conflict of dual-high-powered careers demanding up to 72-hour workweeks, plus the attention offspring need, demand and deserve. Growing up, most observed parents' struggles to juggle jobs and home life. Further, because Millennials came of age during the recession and accumulated more debt from student loans, they are more concerned about job stability and less optimistic than their Gen X peers about progressing up corporate ladders. Add insecurity primed by an expectation of more job-hopping, and the result was staggering: only 42% of the grads said they planned to have children, compared with 78% in 2002. Today's young adults still aspire to long-term relationships, but fewer want kids because they do not see a clear path to manageable lives that include them.

The reasons for this outlook, however, differ for men and women. Money matters weighed heavily on the men, who hesitated to take on the burdens of a family, knowing they would probably be actively sharing family responsibilities with a working wife, a commitment that would collide inevitably with the demands of the high-paying jobs they sought.

Interestingly, men who held a traditional view of males as breadwinners and females as homemakers were more inclined to opt out of fatherhood. By contrast, men who expected to play an active role in the family, felt comfortable with a flexible career or considered becoming a stay-at-home-dad were more likely to say they planned to have children. Both types of young men had internalized new gender and economic realities -- wives will be working and childrearing will be shared and expensive.

Fewer women in the class of 2012 planned to have children because they did not equate a meaningful life with motherhood. 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. (Men saw positive social impact and fatherhood going hand in hand). 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. Women also emphasized the impact of children on time available to take care of themselves, particularly on fitness and heath, with more deciding the tradeoff was "not worth it." Fully embracing the freedom to choose whether or not to become a mother, women concluded that lost personal and career possibilities were simply too great.

Long work hours, heavy student debt, job and career stress, anticipated work-family conflict and health and social tradeoffs all weighed into the decision to plan or not to plan to have babies. Millennials' realistic outlook on work and life explains the current baby bust, with many saying simply "it's too much" to become a parent in today's frenzied, digital, global, uncertain world. They want meaningful work, time for social connections and self-care and more than an adulthood defined solely by motherhood and breadwinning. They are pragmatic and sensible which suggests, ironically, that they would be great parents.

This originally appeared in Psychology Today.

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