Don't Rule Out Having Children Because You Want to Have a Career

New research suggests more and more high-achieving young people are planning to forgo kids in order to pursue careers—perhaps because the joyful parts of raising kids are often overlooked.

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A Columbia business-school graduate holds his son during commencement in 2007. It's a rare sight to behold, but if the trends indicated in a recent study of Wharton graduates' plans to have children are any indication, it could become even more rare in the future. (Reuters / Keith Bedford)

In 2012, new graduates of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton undergraduate program were found to be "significantly less likely to expect to have children" than Wharton graduates were 20 years before. The number of men and women who answered "yes" to the question "Do you expect to have children" fell by half.

To the extent that that means 22-year-old men and women are beginning to see work and family as mutually exclusive, we have a big problem.

The Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, directed by Professor Stewart Friedman, conducts longitudinal research on the evolving interests of Wharton students and alumni. In 1992, researchers interviewed 460 members of the graduating undergraduate class, asking questions about how they thought their work and family life would intersect. Twenty years later, researchers interviewed 314 members of the graduating undergraduate class and asked the same questions. The preliminary results offer fascinating, if somewhat depressing, insights in to the evolution of work and family over two decades.

In 1992, 79 percent of men and 78 percent of women said yes, they expected to have children. In 2012, 42 percent of both men and women said yes. Perhaps they moved into the "probably" category? Not so. That category saw only small shifts for men and women. The big deltas were in the categories of "neutral," "probably not," and "no." Seven percent of women and 12 percent of men answered definitively no in 2012, versus only 2 percent of women and 4 percent of men in 1992. Even more strikingly, 20 percent of women and 18 percent of men said "probably not," up from only 1 percent of the women and 2 percent of the men in 1992. Finally, 17 percent of the women and 16 percent of the men had "neutral" expectations about having children, up from 6 percent and 7 percent respectively.

The change in these numbers does not appear to be motivated by views on the desirability of children, per se. Rather, as the study concludes, over the past 20 years "Women are more likely to see the demands of family life interfering with achieving career success, and this gender gap has grown over the past two decades." It is hardly surprising that the survey participants are planning business careers; that is why they choes the Wharton School. But it is a sad statement, 50 years after Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and launched second wave feminism, that 64 percent of women in the 2012 class agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "The demands of family life will interfere with achieving success in my career," versus only 26 percent of the men. Interesting—and perhaps suggestive—that the percentage of men who agreed or strongly agreed that the demands of family life would interfere with their careers (26 percent) was very close to the percentage of men (30 percent) who said that they either would not or probably would not have children.

The Wharton study contains lots of additional data with regard to how men and women think about two-career relationships and the expectation of "having it all," which the survey defines as "a rewarding career, satisfying family relationships, and a fulfilling personal life." But I want to focus on the idea that 22-year-olds are prepared to resolve the work-family tension by simply giving up on family.

In an essay published in November on the New York Times "Your Money" site, Nadia Taha explained that she and her husband, both in their late twenties with good jobs, were leaning toward not having children for financial reasons. She estimated that having a child and doing everything she could to give him or her the best possible start in life would cost roughly $1.7 million in today's dollars—an expense she felt she couldn't afford. She recognized the many reasons to have children, of course, but worried about her long-term financial security and the pain of not being able to afford "the very best of everything for your child."

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Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.

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