Feminist economics posts

Demography in the News—Beware of Rogue Trends

In August 2013, Time Magazine ran the following cover story: “The Childfree Life:  When having it all means not having children” by Lauren Sandler.  Sandler begins the piece with three statistics about US fertility whose job it is to convince us that the author has uncovered something new and newsworthy: a trend towards childlessness in the US.  The three statistics are: the Crude Birth Rate in the US is at a new low, the Total Fertility Rate has declined 9 percent from 2007 to 2011 and a 2010 Pew Research report (interesting that this is news in 2013), which found that childlessness is up from 10 percent for US women who completed their fertility in the mid 1970s to 20 percent in 2008.  Each statistic is factually accurate and yet the conclusions drawn by Sandler miss the heart of the issue.

It is true the Crude Birth Rate (CBR) hit a new low this year, but the CBR is not a very good measure of long-term fertility.  Similarly, it is true that the total fertility rate (TFR) has fallen from 2007 to 2011, but it was unusually high in the mid 2000s.  The longer-term trend in the TFR in the US has been pretty darn flat for a very long time (not a whole lot of news there). The real news here is the effect of the Great Recession, whose employment effects have yet to abate: People are having fewer kids in the context of stagnant employment and high levels of uncertainity.

The 2010 Pew Research report did find that childlessness was up in the US since the mid 1970s, but again the timing of one’s comparison point is everything.  Women who were 40 to 44 years old in the mid 1970s had their babies in the mid 50s and the 60s and those years correspond to the peak of the baby boom.  During the baby boom, births were unusually high and childlessness was unusually low.  Sandler is correct that childlessness is at 20 percent now, but we were also at 20 percent for women born in the late 1880s through 1910, according to a carefully done economic history of fertility in the US by Jones and Tertilt.

Moreover, Sandler completely missed the real news of that report.  The subheading of the Pew report is “[Childlessness] Down among Women with Advanced Degrees.” A recent study by Shang and Weinberg (Journal of Population Economics 2012) similarly shows childlessness in the US declining for all college-educated women born after 1960 compared to those born 1955–1960, a phenomenon they call “opting in to families.”  In my view, this is real news!  College-educated women in the US still have fewer children than women with less education, but the gap is shrinking.  Fewer college-educated women in recent years end up childless (or childfree depending on one’s view about how much is choice versus how much is institutional constraints) and the number of children born to college-educated women was increasing at least through 2008.

The big picture lesson here is to beware of journalist hype.  What becomes news depends so much on what we want to believe about ourselves and what others want us to believe about ourselves.  In this case, the news should have been about the devastating effects of the recession in the short term, and reductions in perceived work/family mismatches for college-educated women in the longer term.

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2 comments
  1. Kristen Ghodsee says: November 9, 201311:48 am

    As Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” This seems to be one of those clear cases where the numbers are being twisted to make a news story. But journalistic hype about demographic trends is sometimes dangerous. Where I do research in Eastern Europe, news of “birth strikes” by women after communism resulted in virulent misogynist rhetoric from the far-right who began blaming women for the death of their nation. I think it is essential to intervene and comment on popular news stories like this one, especially if there is some good news buried in among the hyperbole.

  2. Gunseli Berik says: November 9, 201311:09 pm

    The Sandler piece is uncharacteristic in that it does not project the experience of affluent women onto all US women. But it is characteristic in its class blindness. And, as far as the stats go, we see yet another indicator of rising class inequality among women, which leave some without reproductive choice, while the haves can have it their way.

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