Are children going out of style? Most American women still say they want and expect to become mothers, and a majority of them surely will. Yet even now, the number who will not give birth is at an all-time high. The most recent fertility survey, conducted in 1998, found that among women who had reached the age of forty, 19 percent had not yet had a child. And when childless women of all ages were asked how many children they expected to have in the future, 21.3 percent said they did not anticipate having any at all. At the same time, those who do become mothers are having smaller families. A generation ago, in 1970, among women aged forty, more than half—53.4 percent—had had three or more children. For women of that age in 1995, only 27.8 percent had that many.1
Declines in fertility are becoming common around the globe, from Latvia and Portugal to Barbados and Singapore. As can be seen in Table A (see page 14), a broad array of countries have rates below replacement levels. Among the least fecund are Spain and Italy, despite their Catholic histories. Ireland and Malta also have subzero growth, even though they ban abortion and limit access to reliable contraception. On islands like Mauritius and Guadeloupe, with rates below replacement, reproduction is no longer a result of habit or pressure. There and elsewhere, it is increasingly a choice, and one that fewer adults are making. True, it will be some years before Yemen and Uganda get to zero growth. But if it can happen in Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan, as it has, the possibility should not be dismissed.
As it happens, fertility rates in the United States have taken a somewhat different tack. In 1960, at the peak of the baby boom, each 100 women averaged 365 children, greater than the current level in India. By 1976, America’s fertility had plummeted to 174 per 100 women, about where Thailand’s is today. But since then, unlike in other countries, America’s fertility has been edging upward: last year it stood at 208, just short of the replacement rate. The chief cause has been the rising Hispanic population, whose rate of 298 means it now accounts for 25.3 percent of the nation’s births. Americans of European ancestry, with a rate of 185, are contributing only 59.4 percent of new babies, although they account for 71.6 percent of the population. In fact, 1971 was the last year when white Americans had enough children to replace themselves.
Elinor Burkett claims to speak for a growing group of adults: men and women who are choosing not to have children. On first reading, she seems to have a reasonable complaint. On the job, she tells us, she has to put in overtime for her colleagues, so that they can take “leave from work to watch Susi dance Swan Lake.” And while her employer offers liberal child-based benefits, there are no similar…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.