Let's Not Panic Over Women With More Education Having Fewer Kids

Though the phenomenon has been called "reverse Darwinism," a look at the facts and figures reveals it's not as scary as it seems.

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AP / Amy Sancetta

Women with more education have fewer children—which is one of the reasons why extending equal access to education for women is so important. Women with more education have more opportunities for productive lives doing work other than childrearing. All around the world, when education levels rise, fertility levels fall.

That doesn't mean we have to sacrifice the future of humanity on the altar of gender equality, but it does mean we have to figure out how to raise and support fewer children to be happy and productive (as the economist Nancy Folbre explains).

I wrote about fertility last week, and I'm dwelling on the subject because of What To Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster, Jonathan Last's panic-book about low fertility. The argument and information in the book aren't new, but he provides a good example of common misperceptions that are worth considering. At first glance, the argument doesn't seem to have a conservative political impetus—after all, who's against children? But that only makes it more important to understand fertility in the context of gender equality.

The general relationship between the number of children women have and their relative status in society is clear: Fewer children means higher status. And the relationship is reciprocal: Higher status for women also leads to lower fertility.

Further, the relationship appears at both the individual level and the societal level. Countries with lower fertility levels have, on average, less gender inequality in the realms of education, income, political and social power. Here is the relationship between total fertility (average number of children per woman) and the UN's gender inequality index, which combines reproductive health, political representation, educational and labor force equality. (I made bigger dots for bigger countries, and colored the U.S. dot blue.)

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This shows two things:

  • First, there are no societies with high fertility and low gender inequality.
  • Second, there is a range of gender inequality among the low-fertility countries.

I interpret the pattern like this: There is a lot that can be done about gender inequality—once fertility rates are reduced.

This can be a confusing subject, and Last provides a good example of that. Along the way to arguing that we need more babies in the U.S. (and almost everywhere else), Last complains that poor people are aping the low-fertility behavior of the modern, liberal, feminist, self-centered middle class. The poor are having too few children. But he also complains they are having all the children. He writes:

The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.

And he writes:

What we have, then, is a picture of an American middle class that is surprisingly barren ... Women who go to college or graduate school are unlikely to have even two children. ... It's a kind of reverse Darwinism where the traditional markers of success make one less likely to reproduce.

Going further than "reverse Darwinism," Last also said on his Glenn Beck network appearance that we have "survival of the weakest in a way, but even worse." (In fairness, by that point in the conversation, everyone was getting pretty confused.)

But before debunking this interpretation of the facts, we might first wonder if the facts are even true. In the world of conservative news, it would seem that poor people are sucking the government dry while overpopulating the country with paupers and criminals. Meanwhile, to others—admittedly the set I'm more familiar with—children are seen as the accessories of the narcissistic elite, and rich people are having more kids.

The facts, though, are that poor women have more children (and women with more children are poorer), and that the fertility rates of more-educated women are rising, not falling.

Let's examine these pieces of data individually.

Fact 1: Women with less education in the U.S. have more children.

From U.S. Census Bureau data, we know that, among women who were finishing their childbearing years (ages 40-44) in 2010, those with less than a high school degree had borne the most children (2.56), and those with advanced degrees had the fewest (1.67). (Last's comment that "Women who go to college or graduate school are unlikely to have even two children" seems to follow from the fact that college graduates have an average of 1.73 children, but it's not true. Because about one in every five college graduates have no children, we only get to an average 1.73 because about half actually have 2 or more children.


But this does not mean that, "The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes." That's because only 10 percent of these women had less than a high-school degree, while 34 percent had achieved a BA degree or higher. So here is the distribution of children according to their mothers' education level, next to the distribution of women:

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You can see that women with the least education did have more kids than their share of the population: 14 percent versus 10 percent. But there were twice as many children born to women who were college graduates. So women with higher education are almost doing their share in producing the workers of the future. When it comes to childbearing, in other words, the highly educated are almost pulling their weight.

Fact 2: Educational disparities in fertility rates are decreasing

Among women reaching the end of their childbearing years, the last 15 years have seen a decline in the disparity I just described. Completed fertility rates have increased for those with more education, and decreased for those with less, from 1995 to 2010:


Remember that, even though their fertility rates are quite high, high school dropouts represent only 10 percent percent of women ages 40 to 44.

To be sure: There are a lot of different ways of measuring fertility rates. I'm using completed fertility—the number of children even born to women who reach the age at which childbearing becomes rare (the census defined this as ages 35 to 44 until 2002, and ages 40 to44 since). And this shows women with less education having more children. However, in any given year, women with higher education are more likely to have a child. That's because people spend fewer years with advanced degrees; that is, women who end up with advanced degrees spend years without them first, usually not having children while they advance their educations and careers. So in 2011, women with MA degrees or higher were just 9 percent of women in the childbearing ages, but they had 11 percent of the babies.

The counterintuitive thing here is the rise in fertility among women with more education (which Last might be pleased to be able to call Darwinian). I could suggest a few reasons for this:

  • Maybe the advanced degree holders at age 40 in 1995 were trailblazers, who, in their struggle to succeed against the prevailing sexism, chose career over children. Meanwhile, women in law or medicine are more common today—and we've learned a little more about combining child-rearing with professional careers. (Which often involves paying poorer women to do more caregiving work, which might lead them to have fewer children).
  • Or, maybe post-feminist professional women have come to care less about their careers and choose, perhaps under duress, more childrearing instead. If that is the case, it might be contributing to the stall in progress toward gender equality and the ratcheting upward of competitive parenting.
  • Maybe our intractable work-family conflict—no paid leave, no universal preschool, inflexible workplaces and long workweeks, fathers' inflexibility—has forced women to choose between parenting and professional success, and more have decided parenting is the more fulfilling.