First, it was our avocado toast. Then, we collectively “killed” the cruise industry. And now, millennials are facing the brunt of societal judgment for yet another reason: a declining birth rate.
In between defending skinny jeans and making minimum wage, millennials are choosing to wait to have babies — here’s why.
Birthrates Have Been Declining For Years
At first, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like an easy scapegoat to explain the declining birth rate. But in reality, we’ve been experiencing this for a while now. In 2018, the U.S. birth rate and fertility rates both dropped to record lows.
Millennials aren’t just not having kids. They’re also actively working to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Abortion clinics have seen a significant increase in procedural demand. 65.3% of women ages 15 to 49 use contraception. And those numbers have only increased since the pandemic.
But if this decline isn’t because of the COVID-19 pandemic, then what is it?
The World Has Changed In More Ways Than One
First, I feel like it’s important to note that nothing has inherently changed about women. What has changed is the world in which women live in.
Historical data expert Aaron O’Neill published a crude birth rate chart of the U.S. from 1800 to 2020 on Statista.com. The chart shows that over 200 years ago, the estimated number of births per thousand people was around 48.
By the 1900s, the crude birth rate dropped to around 30. During the baby boomer era, that rate fell to around 21-24 births per thousand people. And since 1970, that number has steadily decreased to its lowest rate of 12 (2020).
This country has changed a lot since the 1800s — in fact, it’s virtually unrecognizable. So, for the sake of conciseness, let’s focus on the mid-20th century to now.
Before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, stay-at-home mothers were the norm. This is unsurprising, considering women had far fewer rights — economical, political, social or otherwise.
During the 1950s, only 1.2% of women in America went to college. Women made up less than 35% of the labor force. It wasn’t until 1974 that women could open a credit card without a husband’s signature.
Modern Women Are Working And Educated
In 2019, college-educated women officially surpassed the number of similarly educated men in the workforce. That same year, women made up 57.4% of the labor force. The last time America saw this many women in the workforce was in 1948, during World War II.
The increase in women’s education alone would be reason enough for a declining birth rate. The Pew Research Center found that the more educated a woman is, the more likely she’ll wait to have children.
Moreover, the same study found that the less educated a woman is, the more likely she is to have children. Among mothers who did not attend college, 62% had their first child before 25. Less than two in ten women who lack a bachelor’s degree are childless.
The correlation between higher education and lower birth rates can be professional. “Women want to have careers now before they settle down,” professor of psychology Clare Mehta told Business Insider. “That wasn’t happening in the past.”
But this correlation can be, and often is, financial. Higher education costs money. In 2019 alone, there were $497.6 billion in outstanding student loan debt for around 15.1 million millennial borrowers. That averages out to around $33,000 per borrower.
As if 30 grand of debt wasn’t daunting enough, having kids is also more costly than ever.
The Skyrocketing Costs of Childcare
Over the past several decades, the cost of childcare has increased in more ways than one. First, in dollars: according to research by the U.S. Census Bureau, the average weekly expense of childcare increased more than 70% from 1985 ($87) to 2011 ($148).
Even the act of delivering the baby is more expensive. A 2020 Health Affairs study found that the average mother will pay more than $4,500 for her labor and delivery alone. And that’s for an insured mother — many women aren’t. And for some international context, delivering a baby in Finland will set you back less than $60.
My sister, who had her first child in 2019, shared her hospital expenses with me. Some highlights from the mammoth bill include two inpatient service charges — for her and her son — totaling over $17,000. The epidural cost over $800.
When did she return to remote work? One week after delivering her child. She was back on-site within a month.
This brings me to my next cost of childcare: time. The United States ranks last in government-mandated paid leave for new parents. Only 19% of U.S. employees have access to paid leave. Only 82% are even eligible for unpaid leave.
Finally, there is the stigma around maternity leave. And lucky for women, they’ll be judged whether or not they decide to take it, according to a 2017 report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“While the woman taking maternity leave was evaluated more negatively in the work domain, the woman deciding against maternity leave was evaluated more negatively in the family domain,” the report states.
Simply put, this country does not make it easy for women to have children.
Things Don’t Seem To Be Getting Better
When the COVID-19 pandemic effectively turned the world on its head, many Americans were left feeling wildly uncertain about their future. That doesn’t exactly spark the baby-making mood, Philip Cohen, a sociology professor, told Vox in April 2020.
“People make long-term decisions when they feel certain about the future, and they put off long-term decisions when they don’t,” Cohen explains. And despite noticeable wane in pandemic-related fear, people are still hesitant about their future for many reasons.
The looming threat of climate change has spurred the rise of a BirthStriker movement. The scientific evidence of climate change is clear. And if no major action is taken to slow it down, studies show up to three billion people will live in uninhabitable heat conditions by 2070.
I know that seems like a faraway, made-up year. But actually, 2070 is when many millennials’ babies will be reaching their 50s and 60s. BirthStrikers wonder if it’s socially responsible to have children at all, and I truthfully don’t know the answer to that question.
So, What’s The Real Reason? Take Your Pick
To be clear, these statistics aren’t meant to shame any millennials currently looking to have a baby. But the consensus is apparent: there are lots of reasons not to have one, all of which are perfectly justifiable.
The New York Times conducted a survey in 2018 asking millennial men and women why they’re opting out of having kids. A whopping 64% cited too-expensive childcare as their primary reason. Others included economic and global worries, insufficient paid family leave and a prioritization of education and career.
With a planet flirting with inhabitability and a rampantly inequitable society, it’s no surprise birth rates have fallen the way they have. Rather than focusing on why millennials aren’t rushing to have kids, why don’t we focus on giving them a reason to do so?