The Real Reasons Millennials Are Having Fewer Kids

Millenials are having fewer kids than past generations — but not for the reasons conservatives think. It’s because we just can’t afford them.

According to new data from the CDC, 2016 had the lowest birth rate on record, at 62 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. As one demography expert bluntly told the Washington Post, it’s about millenials.”A recent piece in the New York Times noted that, in surveys, women are having fewer kids than they say they want to. That author, along with other commentators, blames birth control, abortion access, or even smartphones. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat says it’s about the “porn paradox,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Childless millennials are neatly carciaturized as immature, entitled young people too disruptive and self-involved to settle down and have kids.

But here’s the reality: millenials are the highest-educated, worst-paid, most debt burdened generation in American history. According to the Department of Agriculture, raising a child will cost $233,610 for a middle income family, before the cost of college tuition sets in. That’s almost $14,000 a year, over seventeen years. Do you have an extra $14,000 in the bank? I know I don’t. It shouldn’t surprise us that millennials are financially locked out of parenthood — it’s the natural result of the stagnant wages, crushing student loan debts, and family policy leftover from 1950.

American birthrates frequently drop during times of economic insecurity. Fertility rates fell dramatically during the Great Depression and the oil crisis. Some studies have found that the Great Recession led to about half a million fewer babies born. In moments of economic crisis, people reason that they can’t afford to feed, house, or clothe a(nother) child — even if they may really want one.

But millennials haven’t just dealt with a few moments — we’ve come of age in constant economic crisis. More millennial households are in poverty than households headed by any other generation. Our wages are stagnant: in the last three decades, hourly compensation has risen just 9 percent, all while worker productivity has risen 74 percent. We’ve taken out 300 percent more student loans than our parents generation: without higher education, we can’t secure middle-class jobs as nurses, real estate brokers, or teachers — but if we fall behind on our loans, we may lose our licenses and our livings. Massive wealth inequality looms over us: the richest 1 percent of American households control 38.6 percent of the country’s total wealth, while the bottom 90 control just 22.8 percent. All of this is especially acute for young people of color, who are far less likely to have a family nest egg to cushion them if they unexpectedly lose a job or face a medical crisis. The median black family has just one twelfth of wealth of the median white one.

As work becomes more precarious, Republicans are hard at work shredding the social safety net.

Half of millennials believe Social Security will go bankrupt before we retire — and that’s before Paul Ryan takes a hatchet to the program. But those stagnant wages mean that we can’t save for retirement, either. By some estimates, many of us won’t be able to retire till we’re 75. In 2012, 22 percent of young adults told Pew researchers that they postponed having a baby because of economic conditions caused by the 2008 recession; how much have our economic circumstances really improved since then?

Millenials are far more likely to rent than past generations, in part because those student loan burdens and low wages make it difficult to scrounge together a down payment or qualify for a mortgage. But rents are skyrocketing in major urban areas, putting immense stress on our pocketbooks. Millenials spend three times more of our income on housing than our grandparents did, and we’re still more likely to have roommates. Forget affording a child — I can’t imagine even affording another room to put the crib.

Today, about 11 million families, or about a quarter of all families in the United States, are so severely rent burdened that they spend more than half their incomes on housing. Women are especially likely to be rent-burdened; in 2015, 61 percent of women of color reported that more than 30 percent of their income went just to making rent. It’s no wonder that families with kids are about three times as likely to be evicted as than people living without children. Those families face a very literal choice between making rent and paying for food, healthcare, and childcare.

Oh, and about childcare? It costs more than ever, too. The average cost of full-time daycare has risen to nearly $10,000 a year. In many major metro areas, early childcare now costs more than in-state college tuition. For some parents, childcare is so expensive that it makes more financial sense to stay home than to put their kids in daycare — but then, those parents (mostly moms) see a significant career penalty if they leave the workforce for a few years.  

Millennials aren’t delaying or forgoing parenthood because of entitlement, self-involvement, or our smartphones. It’s because we don’t have paid family leave, universal child care, or affordable housing. 

To feminists, this is untenable. Our decision about when and whether to become parents is an intensely personal one that ought to be governed by the relationships we desire and our vision for the lives we want to lead — not the whims of the most precarious, unequal economy this country has seen for decades.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

Read more about Sejal

Join the Conversation