SALT LAKE CITY — Her mother and older sister each got married at 20, but Aliska Julian was busy nurturing a love of social justice and travel at that age.
At 25, in between trips to Kenya to run the nonprofit she started with her mom, Julian met an entrepreneur named Nate while dancing to ’80s covers at Liquid Joe's in Millcreek.
The pair wed two years later, when she was 27 and he was 32, then waited another two years to have their first son, Morrissey.
Julian is among a growing number of Utah women who start a family later than their mothers and have fewer kids, shows a new analysis from the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
"We were choosing to wait. And it was for sure the best option," she said. "I got to experience so much of the world, and I don’t have any regrets." The duo trekked to Thailand, Egypt and Kenya before they wed, pausing their travels as she earned a graduate social work degree and he started a marketing firm.
Statewide, women in 2015 tied the knot at an average of 24 years old, compared to 22 a decade earlier.
And over the course of the last 70 years, Utah's fertility rate has fallen. The recession has fanned the trend, said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the institute.
"In the past, the economy picked up, and so did fertility rates," Perlich said. But in the wake of the economic rebuild following the Great Recession, she said, “we’re not rebounding.”
In 2015, there were 2.29 births for each Utah woman from age 15 to 44, down from a peak of 2.68 in 2007. That's a 14 percent drop.
"We're actually not seeing a huge delay in marriage among the LDS community" specifically, said Samuel Sturgeon, president of demography firm Demographic Intelligence, during a panel discussion about the findings Thursday at the Thomas S. Monson Center, co-sponsored by the Deseret News and the policy institute. "(But) we are seeing a pretty big delay in the age (LDS women) have their first child."
Data from the LDS Church on those measures is not publicly available, but Sturgeon said enrollment statistics published by BYU show the percentage of married students there has not significantly declined in recent years.
About 24 percent of students at BYU are married according to current enrollment data.
Perlich and her team of four analysts believe it's unlikely the state will return to the 2007 births level, in large part because of lasting economic strain on young households. She called the post-recession decline "very likely ... a new normal."
"We have a lot of clues about why this is occurring," Perlich said, including increasing student debt, housing prices and transportation costs that outpace incomes, and high costs of child care — factors considered in the analysis.
Sturgeon said that because Utahns are waiting longer to have children, he wonders "are we actually looking at a change in numbers or is it just a change in timing?"
"Is it just merely a delay or are there going to be foregone marriages and children?" he asked rhetorically, adding that future data will need to examine that question.
Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University who joined Perlich and Sturgeon on the panel, said that "nationally we have a very significant decline in the fertility rate and a lot of it is driven by factors that are not necessarily just decisions that are made in people's bedrooms."
"I think that a lot of it is driven by economics," Kotkin said, pointing specifically to the cost of housing as a barrier to having more children.
Sturgeon agreed that "economics clearly plays a role." But he cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the role of college loan debt, frequently cited as a barrier for young couples when starting families.
"The whole bottom (economic) half of young people don't struggle with student debt because they didn't go to college long enough to accumulate a lot of it," he said.
The Julians' decision to have no more than two children — Morrissey, 4, and Ander, 3 — "is solely due to economics and logistics," Aliska Julian said.
"Our house is smaller. Day care is expensive. We love to travel. And I want to make sure I'm fully present for both of my children."
After having Morrissey, she returned to her job managing care for dialysis patients when he was 11 weeks old. The family found a good day care and believes it is worth the investment, even though the bill is $400 higher than their mortgage for the boys, who go part time.
Despite its downturn, Utah's fertility rate still ranks first in the country and hovers well-above the declining national rate that rested at 1.84 births per woman in 2015.
"As long as we’re the heart of the Mormon culture region, we will continue to have the highest fertility rate," Perlich said.
Like in the national picture, teen births among Utahns is on the decline, something Perlich and Sturgeon praised as something widely accepted as a welcome trend.
"I don’t think anybody wants to reverse that," Sturgeon said.
The rate of Utah women having babies in their 20s — most especially in their early 20s — has also declined since 2003. The number of women giving birth in their late 30s or 40s have slightly increased since that time.
"It appears that the peak age for a woman having her first child has shifted into the late 20s, instead of the early 20s," states the new institute analysis.
Perlich told the panel audience that "where we've seen our largest decline in fertility rates are among women 20 to 24."
"People are definitely waiting beyond 24 and that's been a pretty rapid change," she said.
One interesting takeaway from the study which Perlich mentioned: Though more parents are stopping after two children, the rate of families having four or more has stayed steady.
Perlich's research considered data from the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as national and state databases, as well as her institute's own projections.
Among the key points Perlich and her team are urging policymakers and the public to consider is that with fewer babies, Utah won't have as many homegrown employees in its workforce. It will need to bring in more labor as its economy grows, Perlich told the Deseret News.
She clarified to the panel audience that "I don't think there's too few humans," but said that if stifling economic factors cause families to have fewer children than they otherwise want, "then it's a problem."
"Are we adequately supporting young families, are we providing the proper supports for people to care for their children and provide for them?" Perlich said. "It's a whole constellation of issues around — as a society, are we providing the supports to allow young families to thrive (and) not just survive, but thrive?"
Perlich said increased longevity in humans, combined with declining fertility, is likely to double the portion of the Utah population that is 65 or older within the next century, from 5 percent to 10 percent. But she said the state's status as the nation's leader in fertility rate means that it is unlikely to dip during that time to below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1, the number believed to be required to sustain current population levels.
"We don't see that in the future of the state," she said.32 comments on this story
The Julians, on a recent weeknight, gathered in their Salt Lake City living room with visitors. The rambunctious boys took turns hugging their 11-year-old golden retriever named Bentley and playing with a new slinky.
Aliska Julian acknowledged she was nervous about having children due to the financial cost and the possibility they could have colic and cry all night.
"It's fun and amazing," she said of parenthood. "But it's the hardest thing I've ever done — financially, emotionally, physically."