The millennial generation gets a lot of press. If you were born between 1980 and 1996 (give or take a few years), you’re considered a millennial. The demographic’s gotten plenty of stereotypes, too. But all jokes about laziness and avocado toast consumption aside, millennials do things differently than previous generations. Technology plays a bigger role in our lives. We prioritize fulfillment and sense of purpose, not just a paycheck, when we look for a job. We take longer to launch into committed, lifelong relationships.
And supposedly we’re having fewer kids.
When toy emporium chain Toys R Us closed, they pointed to the declining birth rate in the US as a major reason their business wasn’t booming. Many other toy stores and retailers catering to parents are struggling to stay afloat. This shift coincides with millennials hitting their twenties and thirties; ages when past generations were more likely to have kids.
Is Toys R Us onto something? Are millennials really less inclined, as a group, to have children? And if so, why?
It turns out the statistics back Toys R Us up. Millennials are having babies at the slowest rate of any generation in American history. Birth rates among women in their twenties dropped by 15 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the Urban Institute. Four years later 2016 brought a record low for fertility—the CDC estimates only 62 births per 1,000 women.
There’s a definite trend. When millennials speak out about not having children—or delaying having children until later in life—they present several clear reasons as well.
The Great Recession happened
This reason has more to do with population growth and decline patterns over time. Researchers agree when the economy’s bad, fewer people give birth.
The opposite’s also true—good economies bring more kids. Toys R Us, for instance, opened in 1957 during the “baby boom” years, the two decades after World War II. With the end of the war and the Eisenhower-led 1950s came robust American optimism. People had plenty of kids, making the “baby boomer” generation American history’s largest. And these kids, in turn, grew up and gave birth to millennials. As a 1982 baby I remember wandering the giant shelves of Toys R Us.
By the 1990s birth rates started to drop. In 2007 the recession hit, and birth rates in the following years fell off a cliff. Statistics estimate a 2.4 percent recession-related drop—which may not seem like much, but it represents almost 500,000 births.
The Great Depression of the 1930s led to a similar birth rate decline. Women born in 1909, who hit their twenties when the Depression began in 1930, had an unusually low reproductive rate as a group. Even those who want kids may put their plans on hold during times of financial instability. This makes sense, because…
Having a kid is expensive
If you’re a parent, this is old news. Kids are one of the biggest investments you can make.
One report calculated for a child born in 2015, a household earning a middle-class level income can expect to spend $233,610 per kid on child-rearing over the years. With projected inflation costs this number goes up to $284,570. And no, the figure doesn’t include college tuition.
Tack on the medical costs of childbirth and the number grows. Parents who pursue IVF, surrogacy, or adoption tend to face a huge expense just to get a kid in the first place.
Often, millennials aren’t having kids because we simply can’t afford to meet a child’s needs. Many of us, myself included, are still paying down student loans for our own college tuition.
Fewer millennials are getting married
Family’s an expansive term, and marriage and kids aren’t always linked. Plenty of parents go it alone, co-parent while living separately, or have a partnership other than marriage.
But the numbers do show a correlation between a decline in marriage and a decline in kids. Nearly half of millennials over the age of 25 have never been married. Compared to the baby boomer generation, it’s a steep decrease.
Money, again, plays a factor. Getting married often includes combining finances and merging the long-term financial goals of two people. It’s a big undertaking. A recent report polled Americans between 25 to 34 years old who’d never married. Many of them said they were putting off marriage until they felt financially prepared.
Cultural expectations are shifting
Several decades ago, more people in their twenties and thirties saw marrying and having children as a given. Nowadays we’ve broadened our ideas of the traditional markers for adulthood and success. While many millennials do prioritize having children, others focus on different life milestones.
Careers, for example, may come first. One survey found several millennials without children would rather not choose between a family and a career. Others found their lives full and busy enough already.
Women in particular are making new choices. Since 1970 the number of women who choose to remain childless has doubled. Safe birth control options are more widely available. Millennials are also less likely than their parents and grandparents to want a large number of children.
Parenting’s a tough job
Once you’re a parent, your child becomes your priority. Your life changes forever, and millennials don’t always feel ready.
Parents in previous generations probably didn’t feel ready or prepared either. But we’ve entered an age where information is easier to access than it’s ever been. Info about the risks of pregnancy, and about the possibility of children inheriting their parents’ health conditions, has some millennials reconsidering childbirth.
Concern about current events is a smaller, but significant, factor in decisions not to have kids. Environmental issues like climate change and overpopulation are two often-cited reasons.
What about the future?
If the childless trend continues, it may impact the economy in ways we can’t see yet. Industries geared towards young children and their families may decline, for instance. Cultural ideas about family, adulthood, and legacy may also shift.
Ultimately, the decision to have or not have a child remains a deeply personal choice. Each option comes with risks and rewards. Millennials may be derided for being selfish, but I think we’re self-aware instead—we know how to do what’s right for us.
Yes, it’s true, millennials are having children less frequently than other generations. But there’s a reason. Debt, personal choice, and the shifting of cultural expectations all play a factor.