Birth rates have been dropping to an all-time low in the United States for years – even before the economic and social uncertainty of the pandemic came into play.
Studies have long shown that this generation is uniquely positioned in their emphatic decision to delay major family decisions. They opt to get married later than previous generations (if at all), buy homes later than their predecessors, and they express broad hesitation about having kids based on money, political uncertainty, relationship instability, the climate, and a firm desire to pursue personal and professional endeavors instead of putting down roots.
My Family’s Somewhat Unusual Perspective
My husband and I were the odd couple amongst our friends. Both born in 1985 (early millennials, based on most definitions) we just happened to fall in love early in college and get married at age 25… after being together for five years. Our parents balked at the long engagement, while friends nodded in agreement. “There’s no rush,” was the general sentiment among our peers. I - having grown up with parents who had four failed marriages between them – was in no hurry at all. We lived together and played house long before tying the actual knot, and fully intended to delay child-rearing until we were better established.
Poor birth control management – a product of exhaustion from the largely-unnecessary pomp and circumstance of marriage – changed course for us. That’s right, we got pregnant on our honeymoon. I remember staring at that stick, texting my best friend with excitement but also being keenly aware of how very alone we were in that circumstance. Not a single other friend from college had gotten married yet. There were absolutely no couples for us to turn to for commiseration purposes. At the age of 26, I’d birth our first child and largely ostracize myself from our peer group, finding that our decision to have a baby was the exact opposite of our parents’ before us.
Finding Ourselves Ostracized – with a Baby
They’d gotten married because society expected them to. Because everyone believed it was time, and the pressure to have kids was overwhelming. In our case, my husband and I were playing “odd man out” by settling down early, soon discovering that our baby-having didn’t necessarily put us on track to have a bunch of playdate pals. Quite the opposite. Suddenly, we were drowning in diapers and formula while our closest peers were still hitting bars and clubs. They certainly didn’t leave us out intentionally, but the logistics of having a baby meant that we simply couldn’t tag along as usual. Other friends saw our inevitable frustration, and many cited that as their reason to wait.
A Few More Millennials Get On Board
It wouldn’t be until five or six years later that most of our friends would finally tie the knot and jump into baby-making. My husband and I ruefully toasted to their success (and sleepless nights) as we sent our first child off to kindergarten and happily watched our last baby head off to preschool. We anxiously reclaimed our days, and our “alone time.” Still other friends delayed until they were nearly 40 before they even started trying, many at that point encountering difficulty in the process of getting pregnant. To that, many of them shrugged, decided it wasn’t meant to be, and quickly moved on with their lives (and thriving careers) without a whole lot of regret.
The laissez-faire approach to family structure was unlike anything that my husband or I had experienced, growing up. We can both recall reciting, “First comes love, then comes marriage” along with the inevitable baby carriage. Somewhere along the line, that bassinet line got replaced with, “and then toddlers, we may or may not disparage.”
Gen Z – quickly following in millennials’ footsteps – show no more motivation than the previous generation to jump into parenthood. But why? What trends have arisen that have led to this rage against the baby? Let’s take a look.
Increase in the Spread of Information
As the first generation to come of age along with the internet, millennials have a unique view of parenthood – and it’s not all pretty. Whereas prospective parents used to get their information about coupledom and being a mother or father from glossy magazines that had a built-in reason to push traditional family values down our throat (helllooo, advertiser money), forums and social media have shaken that landscape up dramatically.
Whenever friends tell me they’re not sure if they want kids, I give it to them straight. “Think long and hard about it,” I say. “Heck, take mine for a few days!” I love my kids to pieces, but the fact is… children are exhausting. And messy. And expensive. A lot of us are committed to no longer hiding that fact, for the sake of future generations.
The Certainty of Economic Instability
Many millennials had their first important economic discussions centering around the chaos that 9/11 unleashed. We remember waking up to burning towers, and what felt like might be the end of our society as a whole. After making it through that and chugging our way through college, we graduated right into the Great Recession. Jobless, hopeless, many moved back in with parents or opted to continue a sort of odd adolescence - with way more roommates than any 24-year-old ever planned to have.
How could a baby possibly fit into that situation? Even if we did manage to get on our feet, the sting of having the entire world as we know it knocked out from under us has left a sting that won’t soon fade.
The first thing I remember about politics was Bill Clinton’s declaration that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Millennials witnessed scandal after scandal, sharpening our civil rights knowledge on the Patriot Act before watching the first black president take the stage, only to swing hard, hard right with Donald Trump. Analysts say there’s never been a time as polarized as this. Many millennials aren’t willing to hang their family hat on such a shaky surface. Instead, I have lots of friends who have opted to remain nimble for the express purpose of saving enough money to emigrate elsewhere, if things get worse.
At the heart of this issue is the fact that there is very little pressure to have kids anymore. Aside from the “where are my grandbabies” question that persists from previous generations, that is. Many, many friends and coworkers have learned that it’s inappropriate and disrespectful to ask about the status of their peers’ impending family status. Long-term singledom and childlessness is rapidly becoming the new norm.
The question remaining at this point isn’t “why aren’t millennials having babies?” The reasons are countless and clear. The real question is, “without decades-old stereotypes, what will the family dynamics of the next generation look like?” Fingers crossed they’ll be able to address a lot of the woes that have caused to many to turn away from parenthood altogether.