Against this backdrop, Benjamin Guzzo argues, using that 1.73-children-per-woman stat to predict catastrophe doesn’t make sense. The common measure of a country’s fertility rate is known as its total fertility rate, or TFR. The TFR predicts the expected number of children an average American woman will have in her lifetime. Importantly, it isn’t some ongoing tally—rather, it gathers the actual fertility rate of, say, U.S. women in their 40s and extrapolates from that number to assert what the rate for women currently in their 20s will be two decades from now. TFR is a useful metric because it’s simple and enables apples-to-apples comparisons globally, Benjamin Guzzo says. But in a country and an era in which more and more women are delaying motherhood, she argues, TFR is an estimate that is bound to be skewed.
That’s especially true because, by and large, the rate at which American women of childbearing age express an interest in starting a family hasn’t changed much in the past decade, suggests research presented at a recent meeting of demographers. Nor have notions of the ideal number of children in a family. Meanwhile, a growing body of research challenges traditional assumptions about the risk factors of so-called geriatric pregnancies. Women, Benjamin Guzzo notes, have long had children in their 40s—it’s just that, in the past, they were often having their third or fourth kid.
While some of this apparently declining fertility rate may be attributable to delay, notably, a woman’s decision to delay a baby does increase the likelihood that she won’t end up ever having one. “We need to be changing how we talk about this from mostly a story about delayed births to, increasingly, a story about births that these women are simply never going to have,” Lyman Stone, a researcher at the Institute for Family Studies, told me in an email.
Read: The bad news about the reduction in teen pregnancies
Whatever’s going on, people decide not to have children, or to delay having them, for all sorts of reasons, not always because they’re not interested. For instance, a 2018 study surveying healthy, egg-freezing women in the United States and Israel on their motivations found that “lack of a partner” was the primary driving force. Specifically, the study participants pointed to a “massive undersupply” of men who are university-educated and committed to fidelity, marriage, and/or parenthood.
Other would-be parents are likely putting off kids because of insufficient resources, or a sense that their environment is too unpredictable. “Economic instability and unaffordable care could be factors for people deciding to have children later in life, or not at all,” said Josie Kalipeni, the policy director of the caregiving advocacy organization Caring Across Generations, in an email. Numerous studies have attributed the growing desire to delay motherhood to financial stressors: economic uncertainty and overwhelming student debt, for example, or job instability and limited access to health insurance. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that societal problems such as climate change—which may eventually affect some women’s ability to procreate—could discourage some prospective parents from becoming parents after all.
All of which is to say: The record-low fertility rate likely isn’t a sign that the United States’ younger generations are rejecting having children. Rather, the way Benjamin Guzzo and many other observers see it, it’s a sign that the country isn’t providing the support Americans feel they need in order to have children.