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Myth Busted: Falling Birth Rate Not Due to Less Desire To Have Children

In recent years, many countries have reported a decline in the birth rate, with some reaching record-low levels. This trend is evident across various regions and demographic groups, and has significant implications for the future of populations and economies.

The anxieties young people have about the future may be causing them to delay starting a family.

Despite the worry of some regarding the decline in birth rate in America, a recent study indicates that there is no need to persuade young people to have more children. In reality, the number of children that young Americans intend to have has remained unchanged for several decades.

According to the study, the average number of children desired by women born between 1995 and 1999 was 2.1 when they were aged 20 to 24 years old. This is nearly equivalent to the 2.2 children desired by women born between 1965 and 1969 in the same age range.

Still, the total fertility rate in the United States was 1.71 in 2019, the lowest level since the 1970s.

What’s going on?

The results suggest that today’s young adults may be having a more difficult time achieving their goals of having children, said Sarah Hayford, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.


The data in the study can’t explain why, but the results fit evidence indicating that young people today don’t think now is a good time for them to have children.

“It’s hard to have children in the United States right now,” said Hayford, who is also director of Ohio State’s Institute for Population Research. “People feel more worried about the future than they might have been several decades ago. They worry about the economy, child care, and whether they can afford to have children.”

Hayford conducted the study with Karen Benjamin Guzzo, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Carolina Population Center. Their results were recently published in the journal Population and Development Review.

The researchers used data from the National Survey of Family Growth, which has been asking people about their childbearing goals and behaviors for several decades.

The NSFG doesn’t interview the same people each time, but it allowed the researchers to track a group of people born around the same time – a cohort, as scientists call these groups – as they passed through their childbearing years.

They looked at 13 cohorts of women and 10 cohorts of men born between the 1960s and the 2000s. They were all asked how many children they intended to have, if any.

“Americans have been pretty consistent with how many children they say they want to have from the 60s to the 2000s,” Hayford said. “Men generally say they want slightly fewer children than women do, but, like women, their preferred number of children hasn’t changed much.”

The percentage of people who said they don’t plan to have any children has increased, from about 5-8% in the 1960s and 1970s to 8-16% in the 1990s and 2000s. But that alone can’t explain the decline in the number of babies being born.

Hayford noted that the number of unintended births, especially among people in their 20s, has declined in recent decades, which has helped reduce the birth rate.

“But that doesn’t change the fact that people aren’t having as many children as they say they want, especially at earlier ages,” Hayford said. “It may be that they’re going to have those kids when they’re 35, but maybe they won’t.”

For example, the study found some evidence that people are reducing the number of children they say they intend to have as they get older.

“As they age, they may be realizing how hard it is to have kids and raise kids in the United States and they’re saying they only want to have the one child, and don’t want a second one,” she said.

In addition, would-be parents may have more difficulty conceiving as they get older.

Larger economic and social forces are also having an impact on birth rates.

The birth rate declined significantly during the Great Recession that started in 2008, which is a typical response to an economic downturn. However, the birth rate continued to decline even after the recession was over, Hayford said.

This study ended before COVID-19First identified in 2019 in Wuhan, China, COVID-19, or Coronavirus disease 2019, (which was originally called "2019 novel coronavirus" or 2019-nCoV) is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It has spread globally, resulting in the 2019–22 coronavirus pandemic.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>COVID-19, but the pandemic served as another fertility shock, at least at first.


“It remains to be seen whether fertility will be able to rebound not just from the Great Recession, but from the pandemic as well,” she said.

For those who are concerned about America’s dropping birth rates, this study suggests that there is no need to pressure young people into wanting more kids, Hayford said.

“We need to make it easier for people to have the children that they want to have,” she said. “There are clear barriers to having children in the United States that revolve around economics, around child care, around health insurance.”

Reference: “Evolving Fertility Goals and Behaviors in Current U.S. Childbearing Cohorts” by Karen Benjamin Guzzo and Sarah R. Hayford, 10 January 2023, Population and Development Review.
DOI: 10.1111/padr.12535

The study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Source: SciTechDaily