The tighter belts being worn of late are leaving less room for baby bumps. According to data released in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, births for 2009 continued the downward trend begun in 2008, and 2010 data indicate more of the same. Falling birthrates often breed anxiety: Who will do the work; who will pay the Social Security taxes of the future? But in reality, the declining baby rates — prompted by the recession, many experts say — actually bode well for women, their families and the nation.
That's because, while the birthrate declined 3% overall, the underlying story is delay. And delay is good.
For the second year running, younger women are putting off kids in much greater numbers than older women. Births to teens declined 6%, and births to women age 20 to 24 fell a big 7%. After that, the decline diminished, coming in at 4% for those 25 to 29, 2% for the 30 to 34 group and 1% for those 35 to 39, while the rate for women 40 to 44 rose 3% for the second year running. (The rate for women 45 to 49 held steady at its 2008 high — fueled by egg donation — of 0.7 births per 1,000 women.) This recession-induced delay piggybacks on a trend toward delay that's grown steadily since the 1970s.
Most everyone agrees that the teen birthrate decline — to an all-time U.S. low — is great news. Fewer births to teens mean that more young women can finish growing up themselves, complete their educations and go on to better work, so they can better support and guide kids when they have them later.
Similar dynamics apply for people in their early 20s, but beyond that point analysts waffle on how much delay is good. We've heard for years about the risk of infertility as women age (per one study, 7% of women will be infertile by age 29, 11% by age 34, 33% by 39, 50% by 41, 87% by 44, and almost all women thereafter). What we don't hear much about is why women wait. Just as recession has long been effective birth control (the birthrate dropped more than 20% during the Depression), economics is a big factor behind delay even in good times. Like teens, women also face a trade-off between wages and babies.
For more than three decades, increasing numbers have addressed this problem through delay — into their late 20s, 30s and 40s. Holding off on kids, women have discovered, provides a shadow benefits system in a nation whose policies aren't very family friendly. Waiting to have children until we've finished our educations and established ourselves at work translates into higher wages long-term (one study found a 3% wage boost per year of delay, and others have found even greater returns). Gaining job experience and your employer's trust pays off in more of the flexibility that helps families thrive. In addition, kids benefit from increased maternal education and clout. And, handily, the later your age at first birth, the longer you're likely to live (higher wages buy better healthcare), so chances are good you'll see your kids grow up.
The average age at first birth for U.S. women is 25 — and rising. Female college grads have first kids on average at 30, males at 32 (true across all races, except Asians, who average 32 and 34, respectively), and women with graduate degrees start even later. Though financial concerns are not the only reason for delay (finding the right partner or seeing something of the world first are also motives), they're significant. The new birth data confirm that older women feel both better able to afford kids and a sense of urgency about having them pronto.
The better wages linked to delay allow women to afford luxuries such as licensed child care for their kids, as opposed to the less-good care that most families rely on. That's nice for them (and for their children's futures), but the bigger gain is at the broader level.
Delaying children has allowed a "trickle up" of women into policymaking roles in business and government. As a result, for the first time in history, women are getting a say in the shaping of the nation's rules and priorities. Women's presence in the business world has led to more family-friendly work options. Once a critical mass of female policymakers who support families is achieved, they should make it easier for all parents, at whatever age they start their families, to combine raising a family with fair wages and a career. The women delaying now could make it less necessary for women to delay in years to come. But we're not there yet.
The current birthrate drop, rather than offering an occasion for anxiety, offers an opportunity to consolidate the gains for women, for their future families and for the nation. Looking forward, we need policies that make it more worthwhile for younger women to delay even in non-recessionary times, by, for instance, helping them succeed in school. In addition, we need to ensure that women at all levels are paid fairly so that they can afford families at the time that is right for them.
There is a silver lining in the economic clouds: More women will be in better positions to support their families when they have them down the line and will have more of the clout that gets their voices heard on all the issues that matter to them. The ripple effect of recession-induced delay will be that many of the women held back from having kids now will have them later, continuing the rise in the birthrate to later moms for some time. That's a good thing.
Elizabeth Gregory teaches at the University of Houston. She's the author of "Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood" and she blogs at domesticproduct.net.