SALT LAKE CITY — American women are putting off becoming mothers longer compared to women in the past. Consequently, they're also having fewer children.
But as America's fertility rate is at an all-time low, American women are still having more children and starting families sooner than women in many developed countries, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.
Senior researcher Gretchen Livingston compared the age at which women first give birth, how many children they have and the share of women who do not ever bear a child, using data on 30 countries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Current Population Survey.
Both U.S. and Latvian women become moms for the first time on average around age 26½, which is younger than women in the other 28 countries that were considered. That's five years younger than the average first age of giving birth for women in South Korea, whose first-time moms were the oldest in the report.
A five-year gap in age "perhaps doesn't sound like a big difference, but I think most demographers feel that five years difference at first birth is pretty substantial," Livingston said. "And the later you start, all else being equal, the window of opportunity for having multiple children is going to go down."
Women in Greece, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Japan, Spain and Italy all average around 30 years old at the time they first give birth, according to the report, based primarily on data from 2015.
Livingston's analysis uses a measure called "cumulative fertility," which is the "average number of lifetime births among women at the end of their childbearing years." It's a look back and thus slightly different from the more commonly cited total fertility rate, which projects the number of babies women are expected to have in their lifetime if conditions at the time don't change.
Despite slight variation between the two measures, "it essentially gets at the same thing," Livingston said. Which measure to use depends on how the data is collected and reported.
The Pew report found women in America had on average 2.2 children, just behind Iceland's 2.3. At the other end of the spectrum are Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan, which each averaged 1.5 lifetime births per woman. When the total fertility rate is used, America's rate is just below 1.8.
The United States is somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to likelihood of not giving birth at all. Only 9 percent of women in the Czech Republic had not given birth at the end of their childbearing years, compared to 14 percent of U.S. women. In Germany, 23 percent had never given birth. A handful of countries have 20 percent or more women at the end of childbearing age that never had children.
"Childlessness is not a 1-to-1 relationship with fertility," said Livingston, because women who have children often have more than one.
Who's having children has changed some over time, too, she said. For example, America has seen "a big rise in highly educated women who are becoming mothers, compared to even a generation ago." American mothers "are in some ways a more diverse group" than they used to be, Livingston added.
Even Utah, where Mormon couples often wed in their early 20s and have relatively large families, has seen the delays. A study in October by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah found "a growing number of Utah women who start a family later than their mothers and have fewer kids," according to a Deseret News article on the study.
Pros and cons
Questions of whether it's better for a society to have fewer or more children are at the heart of policy debates, with experts split on what the data means. Livingston said Pew doesn't engage in conjecture, though she and her colleagues do follow conversations closely.
"Plenty of experts suggest we need a 'next generation' of workers to help sustain our economy. We haven't done research on that, but lots have," she said. "On the other hand, some say we have limited resources, so maybe it's better if the population goes down a little bit. We certainly have seen both arguments when it comes to fertility."
The Deseret News has reported the concerns by those who fear falling birth rates will lead to economic stagnation and predict smaller future generations will struggle to support aging populations in programs like Social Security and Medicare.
In developed countries, a total fertility rate of 2.1 is considered "replacement rate." America's nearly 1.8 total fertility rate is short of replacement, but well ahead of rates in Japan, Germany and Spain, among others.
Recently, the Deseret News reported that even states like Utah with a growing population have noted the growth is slower than in the past. Utah also has a younger population on average than most, which could help its economy, Samuel Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence, explained.
"Historically, states with younger populations have more dynamic economies. If you can get young people coming in and retain the young people you already have, from a policy standpoint, that's were you want to be," said Sturgeon. "If you can get those in their 20s who are making family decisions to decide our state's a great place to settle, it's to your advantage because you are looking at (their) multiple years as taxpayers before they become elderly."
But even recognized ways to bolster the size of a younger population are controversial. For example, Livingston notes "some could argue that migration might be a way to increase the next generation" since immigrants have higher fertility rates on average than U.S.-born people and bring an influx of younger people to a country. But as recent political debates demonstrate, immigration's a very contentious topic in America, too.
The reasons why
The "why" of delaying having children is also debated. While America's fertility rate is down again from the previous year, it seems to buck the belief fertility is usually tied to the economy. Unlike historic declines, right now fertility has decreased even amid economic improvements.
The New York Times commissioned a survey by Morning Consult in hopes of answering why young people are putting off having kids and may not be certain they ever want children. "Women have more agency over their lives and many feel that motherhood has become more of a choice," wrote Times reporter Claire Cain Miller.
Nearly a third of those surveyed said they simply didn't want kids.
But the top reason, cited by nearly two-thirds, was the too-high cost of child care. Just over half said they wanted more time with children they already had. About 4 in 10 cited other specific economic worries, such as student debt, housing affordability and the cost of rearing kids.16 comments on this story
University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen in a recent blog post speculated, too, about the economy's role, noting that since the baby boom, significant drops have traditionally been associated with "a time of national economic distress." Typically, a drop in fertility has been followed by economic downturn, he wrote.
He also analyzed the "conditional probability of having a birth" for women ages 15 to 44. He compared factors within categories including marital status, education, being native or foreign born, race and age and found that "2017 was a big year for fertility decline (at all but the highest ages), the economy is probably about to tank, and the U.S. fertility rate is still relatively high for our income level, especially for racial-ethnic minorities."