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Delayed Childbearing

Written by Dr. Madeleine Roberts
Published on April 1, 2024
Research Highlights

The average age that a woman has her first child in the U.S. has increased to 27 years old in 2021.

Declining fertility rates globally are primarily due to societal factors, including increasing women’s workforce participation, increased costs of childrearing, and choosing to delay childbearing, rather than policy or economic factors.

People are having fewer children and starting families later in life.

Since 2007, U.S. birth rates have declined about 20% (Kearney 2022, Osterman 2023). The total fertility rate (TFR, the average number of children a woman will have in their lifetime) in the U.S. has fallen from 2.1 in 2007 to 1.7 in 2021, but the rate of decline has slowed since the early 2000s (Figure 1, Our World in Data 2022).

The average age that a woman has their first child is rising in the U.S., from 24.9 years old in 2000 to 27.3 in 2021, which is consistent with global trends (OECD 2023).

Reductions in teen births have contributed to this change. The U.S. fertility rate among girls 15-19 years old has declined steadily since the early 1990s, though the U.S. still has one of the highest rates among high-income nations (Martinez 2023, OECD 2023, Osterman 2023).

An increasing number of U.S. women are having their first child in their late 30s (35-39 years old, Martinez 2023).

  • Choosing to wait to have children is associated with overall lower fertility rates and smaller family size in the U.S. (Matthews 2014).

Figure 1. Total fertility rate (TFR), a value calculated to represent the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime, is shown from 1960 to 2021, globally, in the U.S., and in MO. Data from Our World in Data and MO DHSS Vital Statistics 2021.

Shifting cultural norms around work and family have contributed to declining fertility.

Falling fertility rates are due to changing societal norms, as well as economic and political changes, including increasing women’s workforce participation, increasing costs of raising a child, and delayed childbearing (Collins 2022, Kearney 2022, Lino 2017).

The participation of women in the labor force shifted dramatically in the second half of the 20th century (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2023).

  • Today, both parents work in 69% of two-parent households (ACS 2022).
  • This structure is economically advantageous but poses challenges in balancing work with household responsibilities and childcare (Lino 2017, Pew 2015).

Family and personal obligations are a commonly cited reason for not working: 28% of working-age women report not working compared to 18% of men in 2022 (Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve 2023). Women’s increased family and childcare responsibilities compared to men may lead to this gap.

Costs of raising a child from birth to age 17 have increased by 16% from 1960 to 2015, $12,350 - $13,900 annually for middle-income households (Lino 2017). Housing makes up the largest portion of expenses (26-33%), followed by food (18%) costs. The largest increase was the cost of childcare and education, which was 2% of childbearing expenses in 1960 and 16% in 2015. The authors attribute this growth to the expansion of women in the labor force and the increased need for paid daytime childcare.

Reasons for choosing to delay childbearing include (Martinez 2023, Safdari-Dehcheshmeh 2023, Martin 2021):

  • Access to contraception
  • Seeking higher education
  • Participation in labor force
  • Financial security
  • High cost of housing
  • Relationship instability
  • Health concerns
  • Changes in family values and priorities

For more information about how childcare costs impact working families, see our Science Note Childcare Tax Credit.

Falling total fertility rates have occurred globally and are not necessarily due to localized policy decisions.

The U.S. TFR is similar to Sweden, a country with very supportive policies for working families (1.66 vs. 1.67 in 2021, Our World in Data 2022, Bergsvik 2021). Falling fertility rates have occurred globally, and are not necessary reflective of the policy decisions of any one country (Kearney 2022).

TFRs have fallen in many countries below “replacement level” (2.1 children per woman in high-income countries), leading to concern about an aging workforce (CRS 2019, Craig 1994).

  • Calculation of the TFR is sensitive to shifts in birth timing (Livingston 2019). Since women are having children later in life, the current TFR may be an underestimation of how many children that women currently of childbearing age will have in their lifetimes.

 

References

American Community Survey (2022) Employment Characteristics of Families. U.S. Census Bureau. https://data.census.gov/table/ACSST1Y2022.S2302?q=employment%20families

Bergsvik J, Fauske A, Rannveig KH (2021) Can Policies Stall the Fertility Fall? A Systematic Review of the (Quasi-)Experimental Literature. Population and Development Review. 47(4), 913–964. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/padr.12431

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2023) Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2022. U.S. Federal Reserve System.  https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2022-report-economic-well-being-us-households-202305.pdf

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2023) Women in the labor force: a databook. https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-databook/2022/home.htm

Collins C (2020) Who to Blame and How to Solve It: Mothers’ Perceptions of Work–Family Conflict Across Western Policy Regimes. Journal of Marriage and Family, 82(3), 849–874. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12643

Congressional Research Service (2019) Social Security: Demographic Trends and the Funding Shortfall. U.S. Library of Congress. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45990

Craig J (1994) Replacement level fertility and future population growth. Population Trends, 78, 20–22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7834459/#:~:text=In%20developed%20countries%2C%20replacement%20level,need%20to%20be%20much%20higher.

Kearney MS, Levine PB, Pardue L (2022) The Puzzle of Falling US Birth Rates since the Great Recession. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 36(1), 151–176. https://doi.org/10.1257/jep.36.1.151

Lino M, Kuczynski K, Rodriguez N, Schap T (2017) Expenditures on Children by Families, 2015. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.fns.usda.gov/cnpp/expenditures-children-families

Livingston G (2019) Is U.S. fertility at an all-time low? Two of three measures point to yes. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/05/22/u-s-fertility-rate-explained/

Martin LJ (2021) Delaying, debating and declining motherhood. Culture, Health and Sexuality, 23(8), 1034–1049. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13691058.2020.1755452?scroll=top&needAccess=true

Martinez GM, Daniels K (2023) Fertility of Men and Women Aged 15-49 in the U.S.: National Survey of Family Growth, 2015-2019. National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/index.htm.

Mathews TJ, Hamilton BE (2014) First Births to Older Women Continue to Rise Key findings Data from the National Vital Statistics System. National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db152_table.pdf#1.

MO Department of Health and Senior Services. 2021 Missouri Vital Statistics. https://health.mo.gov/data/vitalstatistics/mvs21/Preface.pdf

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) OECD Family Database. https://www.oecd.org/els/family/database.htm

Osterman MJK, Hamilton BE, Martin JA, Driscoll AK, Valenzuela CP (2023) Births: Final Data for 2021. National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/index.htm.

Our World In Data (2022) Fertility Rate: Children per woman. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/children-per-woman-un?tab=chart&time=1950..latest&country=USA~OWID_WRL

Pew Research Center (2015) Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/11/04/raising-kids-and-running-a-household-how-working-parents-share-the-load/

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