The National Center for Health Statistics reported last year that national fertility rates in the United States had dropped to 60.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, a record low that has national implications. A national replacement level is calculated at around 2.1 children for the average woman, while the United States has dipped below this number for about a decade, and current patterns suggest no more than 1.8.
When a recent New York Times and Morning Consult Survey polled a nationally representative sample of men and women ages 20 to 45, it was no longer to establish that fertility rates were declining, but to investigate why. Theories ranged from political and environmental fears to financial and career-driven insecurity, even in the face of economic recovery, but the results were conclusive: Child-care expenses deterred higher birth rates for current parents, and personal leisure time prevented those who weren’t.
Declining parenthood for millennials has produced a range of highly subjective theories that primarily address the fall in sexual activity, from diminished face-to-face interactions to increases in available pornography. But the desire for “leisure,” as the New York Times study indicates for individuals without children, raises more questions than answers. For us, the more interesting findings are the results from current parents.
Why are current families choosing not to pursue larger families, even when all signs indicate such a desire?
Perhaps the United States is mirroring the rest of the industrialized world, where declining birthrates are correlated with a lack of support for working parents. Ours is a society of binaries masquerading as the freedom to choose, when in fact, the very choice to invest in a career seems to preclude the ability for working parents to feel fully secure in their role at work and at home.
And developed countries that prioritize gender equality and progressive family policy outside the United States have established a clear pattern. Sweden, Norway and France have the highest fertility rates in the EU, and Germany has recorded its highest fertility rates since 1973, thanks to a host of family-friendly legislation.
Notable reform includes raising the parental leave allowance to two-thirds of income for the first year for both full and part-time working mothers and fathers (in addition to two extra months that can be taken by both parents or caregivers at the same time), a policy lifted right out of the Swedish model.
Livia Olah, a lecturer in Demography at Stockholm University, found that in Sweden, women were more likely to have a second child if their male partner took paternity leave with their first child, a future indicator for his cooperation in the work of parenting. Modern parents, and particularly modern women, want structures and policies that remove the barriers between housework, childcare and career.
Financial incentives aren’t enough, however, to assure people that the emotional stress of balancing both roles (professional and parent) will be alleviated. Quality childcare options — choices that represent reasonable pricing, qualified personnel, and convenient location — are at the core of choosing family alongside a career. Parental leave is unlikely to achieve much if one of the parents has to quit their job simply because there’s no childcare available at the end of the subsidized leave.
While France’s maternity-leave period starts at six weeks leading up to a child’s birth and ends 10 weeks thereafter, French family policy heavily targets early childhood education. It’s not uncommon for new parents to entrust daycares with children as young as three months old. The legal right to early-childhood placements that move children along a coordinated path from birth to 6 years old does the important work of acknowledging that a family’s choice to “have more children” doesn’t end with the maternity ward, but actually begins there.
To be clear, this kind of legislation, historically, has a murky past. It has smelled of fear, the worst kind of nationalism, that chooses to manipulate its citizens in response to the eroding racial or ethnic advantage of particular groups. So why preoccupy ourselves with fertility rates and birthing numbers in the first place?
Any number of major contemporary issues depend and are shaped by the flux of demographics including immigration, education, housing, the labor supply, the social safety net and family policy. And these issues are merely background to survey data showing that women truly envision a life with more kids than they’re choosing to have. Lyman Stone wrote in the New York Times, the “gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”
Progressive family policy that zeroes in on quality and affordable childcare would be the mark of a developed, highly industrialized society choosing not to immorally manipulate its citizens to multiply but to support men and women in creating the lives they actually want.