Federal study explores childbearing by era

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Why did one-fifth of women born in 1910 never have a baby, while women born in 1935 averaged three?

The answers revolve around social and economic circumstances, said researchers Sharon Kirmeyer and Brady E. Hamilton, who studied three “generations” of women and their childbearing outcomes in a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

Women born in 1910, for instance, faced so many adversities during their reproductive years that 20 percent never had a child, Ms. Kirmeyer and Mr. Hamilton said.

In contrast, women born in 1935 “entered prime childbearing years during the economic prosperity of the late 1950s and early 1960s.” These women had so many children, they were dubbed the “baby boom” generation.

“Childbearing patterns have profound consequences for society,” the NCHS researchers said, noting that the number and timing of children impacts the size of the labor force, and demands for schools, housing, retail products and services.

America is in yet another demographic transition, with increased childlessness, late-in-life childbearing and childbearing outside of wedlock, they added. “What will the future hold for the next generation, the birth cohort of 1985?”

The NCHS report examined birth outcomes and historical circumstances of women born 25 years apart, in 1910, 1935 and 1960.

Women born in 1910 entered their prime childbearing years as the Great Depression swept the nation. Marriages were delayed because men couldn’t support a family; husbands often took jobs far away from their wives, delaying childbirth.

While half of these women managed to have a child before age 21, the rest waited until later to have their first child, resulting in a total fertility rate of 2.4 children per woman. But for many women, “later” turned into “never” - nearly 20 percent were still childless by age 50, Ms. Kirmeyer and Mr. Hamilton wrote.

Women born in 1935 faced an entirely different social and economic landscape. When they turned 20, World War II was long over, and the U.S. economy was well into its great expansion. Men and women married young, and since the husbands were typically employed, they started having children.

Childbearing at a young age often allows for more children to be born, and almost 40 percent of these women had four or more children. This lifted their fertility rate to 3.0 per woman; only 11 percent never had a child.

Women born in 1960 came into their childbearing years in the 1980s, where yet another set of circumstances waited for them: Women spent their 20s going to college and work, and used birth control and abortion to avoid having a child. These women tended to have children, but they did it at later ages. Their fertility rate was 2.0 children per woman; 15.6 percent were childless at age 45.

The childbearing outcomes for women born in 1985 are unknown, the NCHS researchers wrote. They face circumstances such as economic upheaval and war, as well as social changes that include delayed marriage; delayed childbearing, even into one’s 40s; and more cohabiting, unwed births and “fragile families.”

Immigration and religion are other factors that affect childbearing, said two scholars who study U.S. family trends.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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