What to expect when no one’s expecting

photo-44I got to know Jonathan Last because both of us (in separate years) won a Phillips Fellowship. This journalism fellowship — which is aimed at those on the conservative side of the political spectrum — supports research into a big topic that might become a book. The alums of the fellowship program get together 2-3 times per year.

At each get together, Jonathan would announce how his work was going on his project: a look at the declining birthrate in America (and most other countries) and what it meant for the future. Then we’d all enjoy a hearty joke about how those of us in the room were not part of the problem, as every alumni gathering bought news of a new baby — many times, second, third, and even fourth (and in one case, like seventh, but I’ve lost track) babies.

Last’s book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, is finally out, and was featured on the cover of the review section of the Wall Street Journal this weekend. His point is that much of our economy and society is not set up to deal with a declining population. That’s an issue, as the US birth rate has been under the replacement Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 2.1 children/woman pretty consistently for years. While demographers used to be worried about overpopulation, now the talk is about managed decline. How do you support retirees when there are fewer workers? How do you get rid of excess buildings  so the whole country doesn’t turn into Detroit — or be taken over by wolves, like some towns in eastern Germany? What happens to the capital markets when the bulk of older people are looking for safe investments or to pull money out, rather than investing for growth? While the US has been buoyed by immigration in terms of TFR numbers, immigrant women tend to revert to the mean after a generation or so, and in any case, in much of Latin America (the major source of US immigration) fertility rates have declined drastically too.

Many governments are alarmed at the prospect of shrinking — as opposed to stable — populations, and so Last looks at various pro-natalist policies around the globe. Some of these have been semi-effective, and some have not. He concludes that “the government cannot get people to have children they do not want. However, it can help people have the children they do want.”

That last point is interesting for the American experience, as the US “desired fertility” rate (if you ask women how many kids they’d like to have) is around 2.5. Many women would like to have 2 or 3 kids, but wind up having 1 or 2 kids. So what could make families decide to go for that second or third child, thus keeping overall TFR around 2.1?

Last looks at a few ideas. He tries to avoid some of the sexism that rears its ugly head in many discussions on raising birthrates, and while one can read between the lines that he’s not completely dismissing the standard male-conservative-journalist discomfort with mothers in the workforce (don’t get me started on National Review’s treatment of this topic) he does note that “the liberation of women into the workplace [has] been enormously beneficial to us as a society” even if a side effect is delayed family formation, and hence smaller families. So if the answer isn’t to send women back home — or increase religious affiliation (one reason the Phillips group might be so fertile) — what is the answer?   

One of the most intriguing ones is making college cheaper, and introducing some sort of credentialing system for specific skills. Long time readers of this blog know I am fascinated by the topic of merit badges in non Boy Scout contexts. College costs have zoomed upward in recent years. That makes parents view children as more expensive when they start looking at college costs. Plus, as people take longer to get the degrees necessary to enter the middle or professional class — which can happen if you have to take breaks for financial reasons, and if colleges offer fewer sections in one of the few attempts at economizing — they get married later. Even if they get married, college debt has them put off children longer until they’re financially stable. He suggests that the federal government get in the micro-credentialing business with exams showing you’ve mastered certain skills.

He discusses how the Social Security system at the margins discourages larger families. In the past, one of the major reasons for having kids is that they would care for you in your old age. Social Security benefits are paid for by current workers supporting retirees. So these days, the system “gives everyone welfare-state payouts in old age, regardless of whether they bore the cost of creating the taxpayers who fund the payouts.” He cites various proposals for changing this, including one to reduce FICA taxes by one-third for the first kid, two-thirds for the second, and completely by the third, until the kid turns 18. I tend not to like special tax breaks for anything, and I think such proposals miss how we all pay for everything. Childless people might complain that their property taxes paid for schools for all those years, even though they didn’t personally consume any of that education. Likewise, the government already gives child tax credits.

More interesting to me is the idea of promoting telecommuting. One of the biggest issues for families is what he calls the “dirt gap.” People with larger families tend to live in places where they can get more real estate cheaply. The problem is that these tend not to be job centers. When people elect to move to the ‘burbs, they buy themselves long commutes or reduced opportunities. Telecommuting changes that, so that people can potentially live near extended family (a boon for childcare purposes), have enough space so the kids can have a basement, and yet still plug into the economies of cities.

That last point is something I’ve been pondering as I’ve been reading a book called Walkable City, by Jeff Speck. This treatise on urban design is all about making cities denser, with higher property values, and lots of bike paths. This is great for hipsters and empty nesters, perhaps, but it’s really hard to bike three kids to daycare. Or even transport them around. See my attempt in the photo accompanying this post, taken on a vacation, when I am pushing two kids in a double stroller and have the third in an Ergo baby carrier strapped to my chest. Indeed, Speck lived for years in Washington DC without a car, but he noted that, when he had his second kid, they started looking at cars again. We left Manhattan in part because we didn’t want to spend the cash on a 3-bedroom apartment when we could have a 5-bedroom house for less out here in PA. As places try to appeal to the hip, one effect is to make it harder to have that third kid.

What do you think might affect birth rates?



31 Responses to What to expect when no one’s expecting


  1. Elizabeth says:

    Snobbery. I have had countless encounters where the hyper-achieving mom with one over-scheduled child looks at me with my single motherhood status and brood of 3 and frowns. I can see the wheels turning as she wonders how I can possibly meet all of the needs of three children completely. Back in the day I shied away from such women with feelings of inadequacy. Now as I see all my hard work (and my children’s) coming to fruition I realize I did do a good job of balancing life, illness, parenting and work. My kids are happy, engaged and have some really cool goals. I am very excited for their futures. But if I had let those glares get to me I would have never kept going until I had three. Of course, not all hyper-achieving women are like this but I definitely butted up against it a few times. And the question remains; have you ever heard a parent say they wished they hadn’t had that last baby? I think not.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book, Laura. I’ve been reading about the declining birthrate, and it’s not as simple as young women being “selfish” by having high-powered careers and outearning men. As you point out, young adults have legitimate reasons to be apprehensive about starting a family, such as student loans. The merit-badge system sounds like a great way to lower the ridiculous cost of education.

    I definitely see a lack of responsibility and ambition in today’s young men, and many of them are not interested in marriage. Other adults–my age and older–have shared this observation with me. (So many reasons for this, but I won’t go down that road.) I don’t know all the solutions, but there has to be a way to motivate boys to be responsible, without cutting down girls. And to show them the value of marriage.

    I’d also propose fewer stories in the media of women having to choose between work and kids, and more stories about how it can work for families. Telecommuting–great idea. (BTW, thanks for the tip on hauling kids around in dense areas. I really hadn’t thought of that! In my future-reference file.)

  3. I think we talked about a working paper looking at the effect of housing prices on fertility recently. I’ll have to look that up.

    The causes of declining birth rates in developed countries are empirical questions and there are empirical answers– a heavily studied question.

  4. cara m says:

    3 kids on a bike to daycare out. inner cities are not great places to raise kids. post a link to the national review article…

    • Laura says:

      @Cara- trying to find a link. The piece that most annoyed me was a cover story from 2001 called “Thanks Mom! The case against working mothers.” Written by Rich Lowry (but it seems to be too old to be in the online archive). What I find hilarious about that one in particular is that then Lowry fell in *love* with Sarah Palin. Like wasn’t it great that McCain chose her, and wouldn’t it be great to have an advocate for special needs kids in the McCain administration… I agree that it’s nice to have an advocate for special needs children in high places. But Palin was (and is) a *working mother.* Of a small kid. A small kid with special needs. Shouldn’t — in that worldview — she be in the kitchen instead of government?

  5. cara m says:

    my friend does say that if you have three kids one can ride a bike to daycare and the other on the bike.. i for one am glad not to have to bike them to daycare.

  6. Devon says:

    Interesting! I would love to read the book on walkable cities. I often walk my 2yo to daycare… He is sad when we drive.

    I just found your blog … Listened to your book last fall and re-reading it now… I keep feeling like I am in a time warp..”what she moved? What 3 kids?” :-)

    • Laura says:

      @Devon- oh yeah, the kids keep coming fast and furious around here… Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  7. Cloud says:

    I like the point about not trying to convince women to have children they don’t want, but instead focusing on enabling women to have the children they do want. I have only ever read Economist summaries of the research on this topic, but based on what the women in my circle say, I’d guess that the difficulties of juggling multiple pick ups/drop offs and the extra difficulty of scheduling of sports, music, etc. for increasing numbers of kids plays a role. I do know a couple of people who are not having as many kids as they want because of the finances, but mostly when the women I know say they are stopping before they have as many kids as the truly want, their reasons are about logistics. Personally, I only ever wanted two- and my first was such a difficult sleeper that I almost decided not to go ahead and have the second. I’m glad we did, but I don’t wish for another.

    • ARC says:

      Logistics is HUGE, especially if you have kids spread out in age and thus can’t be at the same place during the day.

      One thing I’m surprised no one mentioned is affordable, high quality child care. Maybe this is a big city problem, but where we are, full time infant daycare in a good center is $2500 per month. It drops a little for older kids, but not much. Having 3 in daycare at one time would be prohibitively expensive for most families who are also paying a mortgage in our not-so-cheap area.

      Hiring a nanny may be more cost-effective for 2 or 3 kids, but it’s VERY expensive here as well – one friend quotes $4000/mo when you include benefits, taxes, etc.

      Sure you can find cheaper day cares and nannies, but this is not an area where I’d want to cut costs.

      Along with the telecommuting option, co-located (subsidized) childcare options would be great, too.

      • Laura says:

        @ARC – Logistics are an interesting part of it. One reason I’m careful about whether I enroll my kids in stuff is that I don’t want to be running all over the place (and I don’t want my nanny to need to run all over the place either). One thing at a time for the older two is plenty. But there actually is an interesting phenomenon with having 3+ kids in that they really entertain each other as they get older. My house is a constant playdate to the point where the kids probably need more alone time than they get.

        But yes, cost. I’ve always marveled at average childcare costs, because they reflect nothing I’ve seen (which is, yes, $400/week for the Bright Horizons/TutorTime level of center-based care, or $800-1000/week for an on-the-books nanny). I think what happens is that a lot of people do have extended family networks in the places where they live, informal arrangements with neighbors, or use home-based daycare, which tends to be more affordable. Or they’re paying a sitter off the books. Obviously, if more families had flexible schedules, parents could trade off with childcare.

  8. What a great, in-depth review. I’ve been fascinated by this whole thing. I’m a part of the Millennials and most of my friends are still barely scraping by to pay for rent and their loans, and actually most of them live at home (and I’m talking – people in their early 30s). I’m actually living a very different life than my peers — 28, SAHM, one toddler and a baby on the way in a month. We hope to have 3 or 4 kids, but we are also barely scraping by due to school loans. It’s crazy.

    Incidentally, though, we live in a VERY Catholic neighborhood where the average family has 5-6 kids. Our neighbors just had their 7th child!

  9. Pamela says:

    I think that we give women a double message. On the one hand, we tell teenage girls (and boys, too) that babies will “ruin their lives” because of missed opportunities for college, career, etc. There’s a lot of focus on how much work babies are in an attempt to scare young women and men away from sexual activity.

    Later, when young women go for careers and all of those opportunities that we would supposedly give up if we had babies, we’re told we’re selfish for *not* having the babies!

    I’m in my early 30s, married but no kids yet, and many of the cultural messages about having children just tick me off. According to the “experts” women in their 20s are supposed to finish college (and grad school in many cases), find a husband (since god forbid you have the babies out of wedlock!!!), start and get promoted in a lucrative career, pay off all student debt, save aggressively for retirement, and have all the babies they will ever want by their 30th birthday. If you’re a late bloomer, you get an extension until 35 but only with dire warnings about the looming ovarian cliff that you fall off of on your 35th birthday.

    I do know that women’s fertility can be an issue (and is an issue for some in their 20s) and I don’t mean to diminish the potential pain/stress of not being able to have babies when you want them. What I do object to is the idea that you have to do absolutely everything in a 10 year period between 20 and 30. Becuase we’re supposed to have it all, all at once. I don’t think that’s realistic.

    I’m hoping to start having babies in the next year or two, but in the meantime I’m working on building my credability at work so that I (hopefully) have more options when I do have the babies. Plus the work I’m doing now (and getting recognized for) has translated into higher wages and more savings for me/us to use when we do have a baby. Does that make me selfish? I don’t think so.

    • Leah says:

      I’m in the same position…almost 35 and no kids yet. I’ve focused on my career and also suffered some setbacks (a divorce from the previous husband, extended unemployment, etc). So I’ve been hearing about the ovarian cliff for a while. But I have faith it will work itself out in time, and I will have the babies I want. I may be a little older, but if the outside of me looks 25 or younger, I’m hoping the inside of me follows suite :)

    • Rinna says:

      I agree with most of what you’ve written. Completely logical…The problem is, our ovaries just don’t care about the logic. I’m totally against pressuring any woman, but we should be armed with the truth. Fertility doesn’t just drop off at 35 – the reality is that it steadily declines from your 20s, and the decline becomes more rapid once you’re 35 or so. That’s not to say it should necessarily change your – or another woman’s decision – but it’s good to be armed with the knowledge. Plus, and I find people focus on this a lot less than the “ovarian cliff,” it just gets harder to look after a kid/kids as you get older. Big difference for me from having a baby at 28 and at 33!!

      • Laura says:

        @Rinna (et al) – it’s kind of an odds game. While it may be physically ideal to have babies in one’s 20s, life often doesn’t allow for that, for many reasons. The good news is that many women do have children in their mid to late 30s. I wish that this discussion wasn’t framed in terms of “should I focus on my career first or kids first” as if women aren’t capable of doing both at the same time. In my own life, it’s not been an either/or thing. My career is in much better shape now, with my three little ones, than it was before I had my first. That’s an anecdote, not data, of course.
        Curiously, one of the women’s magazines from 1963 (see the post from today) discusses the problem of women getting married and having children so young that they had to come up with hobbies or serious volunteer work because their kids would be out of the house so soon. One might be a grandmother by one’s late 30s! It is funny to see how what people worry about evolves.

        • anne says:

          i’m sorry to say that your insides won’t follow suit; i’ve been trying since age 38 and i look young and have kept in shape.

          your ovaries don’t care about your career or the fact that you don’t have a man.

          there are plenty in my situation. i was fertile when i was young and wasted it.

          imo, it’s better to put in serious time to find a mate for life and have your children as young as possible. rear them full time so they are not deprived of your attention and then you will still be relatively young to have a career.

          these are my life lessons…

          • Laura says:

            @Anne- thanks for your comment. I agree that it’s better to have children young (and, as a corollary, find a partner on the young side, too). But I don’t see that these have to be either/or things. It is entirely possible to work 50 hours per week and date too. You can get married and have kids in graduate or professional school. You can raise children while building a career — and not deprive your children of your attention, to use your phrase. The idea that working deprives children of attention doesn’t seem likely given that women spend more time with their children these days (according to time diary studies, not people’s impressions) when most are working, vs. 1965, when most were not.

  10. Caitlin says:

    I also second the comment about young men of this generation. I am the midst of a divorce because my husband decided he will not have children (we had discussed this before getting married; he thought he would be fine with having children and then changed his mind after we were married). I also have several friends whose husbands say they want kids but they keep pushing the time frame back.

    However, I think the second large part is affordable, decent daycare. I think more women would consider being single mothers if they don’t meet the right person before their time runs out if they knew they had affordable daycare. It’s expensive enough with two incomes, let alone one. I’ve decided that I will have children alone if I don’t meet someone by age 35 (I’m currently 27). With that goal in mind, I’m starting to save money and attempting to figure out how to find childcare, extra help, etc.

    • Laura says:

      @Caitlin- I’m sorry to hear about your divorce, but the fact that you are thinking about all this now is so forward looking.

      • Caitlin says:

        Thanks, Laura. It is heartbreaking but I know I will come out of this stronger and clearer about what I want and need from my next relationship. I will say that part of this forward-looking attitude is due in part to your books and blog posts–they’ve inspired me to look at things differently, find unconventional solutions, and go after what is important to me. Your writing and attitude are a fantastic blend of dreaming big but finding practical solutions to support those dreams.

  11. Laura, thanks for reading the book–and for such a thoughtful and generous review.

    I just want to underline one point for your readers: I’m not in the business of passing judgments on peoples’ life choices. I don’t do that in real life and I don’t do that in the book. If you have kids / don’t have kids, use a nanny and work / stay at home–What to Expect isn’t there to condemn of praise.

    The goal of the book is to be as intensely data-driven as possible, because it turns out that there’s been an enormous amount of research done on precisely these questions of fertility, demography, and family formation. Much of this research is really powerful, but it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

    So What to Expect tries (and I hope, succeeds, to some degree) to present the data, start a discussion, and hopefully allow us to figure out a way forward.

    We’re all hostage to our own experiences, and that makes talking about demographics difficult sometimes. Which is why in the book I go out of my way to say, explicitly, that I’m not trying to argue anyone into having children, or conduct their family life in any given way.

    I’m just trying to present the data so that we can all talk about this stuff like adults. Because, to paraphrase the old Trotskyites, You may not be interested in demography, but demography is interested in you.

    Laura’s review–and this discussion here in the comments–is exactly the kind of thoughtful exchange that I was hoping to kickstart.

    Thanks again, LV.

    • Laura says:

      @Jonathan- thanks for your comment, and thanks for stopping by the blog. We try to be reasoned and thoughtful here. Sometimes we even succeed!

    • Cara says:

      I haven’t read your book yet but you are a man and it is different for you guys and American men — and most men- want unreasonable things from women — perfect looks, insatiable sexuality all the time with no warm up or seduction past marriage– cleaning, cooking, major major breadwinning and most men worldwide are still coasting and nowhere near 50-50 that is required in all arenas for women to be really sel-actualized.. I just don’t think having walked in a woman’s shoes you can really get it, how much more marriage still benefits men how we struggle and suffer …

      • Gee Cara, for someone who hasn’t read my book and has never met me, you seem to have some awfully concrete ideas about what I think.

        Try reading the book. You might be surprised.

        • Cara Marcano says:

          major social security reform, higher education reform and improving transportation networks – is that about it, also immigration reform? I really don’t think immigration is causing my childcare to be so expensive or my society to be so anti child/anti self actualized woman but hey .. what exactly could be done to social security reform that would really account for the cost of childcare and the juggle that is required of american women to procreate and self actualize successfully in our society.. I’d be curious specifically what are the solutions to this pending disaster… I’d never have a dog rather than a child but I get why folks hesitate; I totally get it. I’d like to read more on the specifics of so what of this issue? what exactly are you all suggesting we do about it..

  12. Cara says:

    Most women have about 1 fewer child than they say they wanted say in their early 20s… honestly I’m not sure how many kids I would have wanted if you’d asked me in my early 20s.. From a longitudinal study
    in the U.S. from 1982-2000, 38% of women had the number of children at
    age 40 that they intended to have at age 22. For the other 62%, most
    had fewer than they intended. Factors associated with having fewer
    children included being a highly educated woman and having a first
    birth after age 25.

  13. Sara says:

    Jonathan, congrats on publishing your book, it sounds fascinating. I’d be curious to know if and how infertility rates factor into this decline — both from women waiting longer to have children and infertility rates in general. I’ve come to hate what another commenter so aptly called the “looming ovarian cliff” warning, but for a somewhat different reason than many women who have it on their mind. My husband and I thought that it was okay to wait until I was 30 to start trying because I was still really young, and the “cliff” with all its potential problems was still five years away, right? Well, 35 is just the average on the bell curve — which means that not everyone gets that long. Maybe I’m seeing and hearing more infertility stories because I’m going through it, but I wonder how many other couples out there would be having more children if their bodies were more cooperative, and/or if fertility treatments were more financially accessible. I wanted 4, but now I’ll be thrilled if I can have even one. Laura, I particularly appreciate what you’ve done in your work to emphasize that women can have full and successful careers and lives without putting off motherhood. I wish now that I had started five years sooner.

    • Laura says:

      @Sara- thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry to hear you’re having a hard time. I think from what I’ve read there’s no particular evidence that infertility, in an absolute sense, is more frequent now (see: http://www.dcmsonline.org/jax-medicine/2000journals/may2000/ageinf.htm), but we do feel more comfortable talking about it now. Decades ago when there was nothing much to be done about it, medically, perhaps people just didn’t mention it, and so we didn’t hear about it. If more couples attempt a first pregnancy later, then lower rates of conception after 12 months due to age related fertility issues will also result in more stories of infertility. The statistics in that article are actually pretty interesting. Most women will conceive if they want between 35-39 (though it may take a while). Almost no one will after 44.