Older Women Are Having More Children, Whether They're Married or Not

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Women may no longer need husbands to have children, but that doesn't imply they've given up on men.

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Marriage is a social invention. Want to have a child without getting married? A growing number of people are doing so.

In an Ohio State University study out this week, new data show that women now in their late 30s and 40s are having more children than women the same age were having in previous generations. That holds true for married women, said Bruce Weinberg, a co-author of the study, but unexpectedly, also for women who have never married.

"The share of women in their late 20s, 30s, and early 40s that have not been married is increasing," said Weinberg in a phone interview. "That marriage rates are going down makes it more surprising that we find an increase in fertility rates, because never-been-married women are [conventionally] much, much less likely to have children than women who are or have been married."

Let's go over that again: more women are waiting to have children, as we suspected. What we didn't know until now is that many of these waiting women are also single. And together along with married folks, these women are driving up the fertility rate.

To be sure, advances in fertility treatments are partially responsible for this boom. Most of the fertility gains in recent decades, said Weinberg, has come from broadening access to what's known as assisted reproductive technologies (ART) -- the kind where eggs and sperm are brought together in a laboratory.

"There's been this increase in coverage by insurance over time," he said. "California started introducing medical coverage in 1989 and 1990, and New York in 1990, and gradually you see not only improvements in technology but improvements in access, because insurance is now paying for them and it's not like, 'Oh, take a pill' -- this is actually expensive lab work."

Not surprisingly, opening up ART to more women led to an increase in birth rates. But fertility treatments tell only part of the story. By the researchers' estimates, the birth rate would still have increased by a significant amount even without ART, suggesting that some share of single women were conceiving naturally with a male partner.

It could be that a greater share of mothers really are single in the cultural sense of the word: living independently without a partner. Just as likely is that these mothers are single only in the legal sense: they're technically unmarried, but they cohabitate with a partner who takes on a parental role. Unfortunately, Weinberg's team didn't have access to the necessary data on cohabitation to make the distinction.

And this trend may only be getting started, if attitudinal surveys of the milennial (18-29 year old) generation can be trusted. As many as 52 percent them say that good parenting is one of the most important concerns in their lives, according to a 2010 Pew research study. Meanwhile, only a third said marriage was a high priority. That's a major departure from the previous generation's attitudes. Gen X-ers who were polled when they were the millennials' age expressed relatively greater support for marriage -- by about five percentage points -- and valued parenting relatively less, at a rate of 42 percent.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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