How American Corporate Culture Suppresses The Country’s Birth Rate

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Recently, there’s been a spate of significant articles in the popular press about millennials not having children and needing greater flexibility to integrate work with the rest of life. Olga Khazan in The Atlantic wrote in “The Childless Millennial” about Urban Institute data showing a decline in fertility. Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post wrote “Bad News for Older Folks: Millennials are Having Fewer Babies,” also citing The Urban Institute data and noting economic factors as the principal constraint. Nanette Fondas in Harvard Business Review’s Blog cited EY’s study in her piece “Millennials Say They’ll Relocate for Work-Life Flexibility.

It’s true. Millennials are responding differently to work/life demands than the generations before them. But it’s not simply that they don’t want children. And it’s not simply that economic factors are a barrier. I recently published longitudinal research from the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, comparing Wharton’s Classes of 1992 and 2012. The rate of Wharton graduates who plan to have or adopt children has dropped by about half over the past 20 years. But when we dug into the reasons for this drastic shift, we found that it not’s just about money.

In brief, for young men, finances were indeed an important factor in determining their plans to have children. For instance, young men who carried student debt or worked their way through school were less inclined than others to plan to have children compared to those young men. We also observed that young men today are anticipating more conflict between the different aspects of their lives, and are, consequently, abstaining from parenting in larger numbers than a generation earlier. Millennial men are also less inclined than their own fathers to think of themselves as breadwinners, with all the commitments that breadwinning entails. Their conceptions of their roles are changing. With men’s changing attitudes, egalitarianism is on the rise. Young men do not merely accept women as peers in the workplace, they expect women to work. This leads many to wonder how, with both partners working, there can be time enough to raise children.

The U.S. ranks among the lowest in the developed world in the early childhood care we provide.

For young women, it was an even more complicated picture. Student debt was not a factor for them. Rather, the decision to have children seems to be, perhaps for the first time in history, more of a choice — signifying greater freedom — for women. For young women in our study, helping others through mission-driven careers or volunteer activities outside of work seem to be fulfilling the same pro-social needs that motherhood had provided for previous generations of women. In other words, young women now have various avenues through which to express their nurturing or caregiving. Motherhood is not the only outlet for them; they can help heal the world through work that has positive social impact. Also, for the women in 2012, compared to the 1992 cohort, being healthy no longer coincided with having children. Whereas 20 years ago, for the women surveyed, to be a “healthy women” meant having children, the young women surveyed in 2012 did not equate childbearing with health; indeed, we observed just the opposite. Today’s young women see childbearing as being a health risk. Religion too correlated with childbearing plans for women, though not men. For women today, the less that religion is a part of their lives, the less likely they are to plan on having children; and there has been a significant rise in the number of people, men and women, who identify as either agnostic or atheist.

Some of the good news in our 20-year longitudinal survey is that young men and women today are more likely than the previous generation to share the same values about what it takes to make dual-career relationships work. One implication of this finding is that there is greater solidarity among men and women and therefore more flexibility about the roles that both men and women can legitimately take in society. While it used to be that women had aspirations for hierarchical advancement that were lower than those held by young men, today those aspirations are the same for men and women. And there is now a greater sense of shared responsibility for domestic life. Young men are realizing they have to do more at home than their fathers did, and today’s young men want to do so.

What this means is that the structure of work and the pace of careers will need to change. Attitudes are changing. Yes, it remains incredibly difficult for women to break through to the top strata, because it’s still primarily a man’s world at the most senior levels and because there are all kinds of additional burdens that women continue to carry. And yes, it still remains difficult, though increasingly possible, for men to opt for the non-traditional path of stay-at-home-dad. But we are seeing more expressed freedom, more realistic goals, and more unity among young men and women as they are creating new ways to pursue lives that fit with who they truly want to be. And that is a good thing.

Many young men simply can’t envision a future in which they can afford to support children, because they are carrying high levels of student debt.

Our current capacity to meet the challenges young people anticipate in trying to rear children is cause for concern. And there is no one solution; partial answers must come from various quarters. Here are ideas for action in social and educational policy, based on my own research — described in Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family — and what others have learned:

Provide World-Class Child Care
Children require care, yet the U.S. ranks among the lowest in the developed world in the early childhood care we provide. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the majority of American day care providers ranked fair or poor and only 10% were deemed of high quality. Yet Americans spend more on child care than other developed countries, and many of those countries are able to provide excellent child care. In addition, the cost of care has doubled since the 1980s, according to the Census Bureau. Just as bad, if not worse, the K-12 education we offer falls far short of our aspirations and of global norms, and the results are distressing. A massive overhaul could start with labor market compensation practices. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers earn even less than home health care workers. A smarter approach would be to treat those who care for children as professionals and to invest in the training and licensing requirements that would be needed to justify much higher rates of pay for those who care for our youngest citizens. High-quality child care not only helps children but enables their parents, mothers and fathers, to engage fully in work without unnecessary distraction and worry. Our 2012 respondents were attuned to the fact that children require a caring person tending to their developmental needs. This was true for men as well as women. If millennials want children — and realize wisely that children need to be cared for and that often both parents work outside the home — then we need to step up, as other countries have done, and invest in nurturing our young.

Support Portable Health Care
In our study, the anticipated financial costs of childrearing negatively affected millennials’ plans for becoming parents (this was especially true for young men). Given the rising costs of health care, working parents benefit greatly from health care policies that don’t punish them for taking time off or moving. The Affordable Care Act is a step in this direction. It helps families obtain care while avoiding crippling debt as both parents might now have to navigate careers in which they move from job to job. And preventive care reduces the need for time off due to health problems that afflict workers and their children. This is yet another way that we can ease the burden for those young couples who want to have children and two careers.

An aging population with fewer workers could mean trouble sustaining social-security programs, projecting military power, and maintaining a high degree of innovation.

Relieve Students Of Burdensome Debt
Many young men simply can’t envision a future in which they can afford to support children, because they are carrying high levels of student debt. Skyrocketing interest rates on student loans and the increasing cost of higher education result in debt burdens that are too onerous. Chris Christopher, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, calls student debt “a real monkey wrench in the works of our families and economy,” adding that if college costs and student debt continue to rise, the nation’s low birthrate may become the “new normal.” Nobel-laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz concurs. “Those with huge debts are likely to be cautious before undertaking the additional burdens of a family,” Stiglitz writes. What’s true nationally is also true of the Wharton men we surveyed in 2012. Those men who told us that they had financed their undergraduate educations through employment during school, private loans, government loans, and scholarships and grants were significantly less likely to plan to have children.

Display A Variety Of Role Models And Career Paths
In our sample, we found that career paths have narrowed because students believe that they must earn money quickly and that only a few options offer this. One man from the class of 2012 said, “Career paths today seem to be pushed upon students too quickly, or students find themselves in paths they don’t feel are expressing their true selves but are ‘stuck’ due to financial reasons.” The more that young people hear stories about the wide range of noble, and economically viable, roles they can play in society, the easier it will be for them to choose the roles that match their talents and interests. Young adults would benefit from exploring as wide an array of career alternatives as possible, including and especially those that allow them to have the kind of autonomy and flexibility required to be engaged in both their careers and in their roles as parents.

Require Public Service
Our study found that young people today, especially women, want to do work that helps others, despite their expectation that they will not be well compensated for it. And young women who expected their jobs 10 years in the future to provide the chance to serve others were significantly less likely to plan to become mothers. Young people are yearning to do work that benefits others. Our society could channel that enthusiasm and idealism by requiring a year of public service for postsecondary school youth, which would not only improve our workforce but would help all of us recalibrate what’s really important. And it might help those young women who, as we observed, now foresee a tradeoff between social impact via one’s career and motherhood, to envision instead a life in which they can serve both the family of humanity and a family with children of their own in the scope of their lifetimes.

We know that families centered on a single-earner father are no longer the norm. And yet our current institutions are still based on this outdated model.

Of course, there are a lot of unknowns about what our current birthrate means for our collective future. Some argue that in our neo-capitalist society, based as it is on information and finance, there is need for a smaller but more productive labor force. Families no longer need their children for farmhands and so society, and our increasingly automated manufacturing sector, no longer has the same demand for labor. On the other hand, an aging population with fewer workers could mean trouble sustaining social-security programs, projecting military power, and maintaining a high degree of innovation. So it seems we still need to be procreating, at least for now.

We know that families centered on a single-earner father are no longer the norm. And yet our current institutions are still based on this outdated model. We, as a nation, need to focus on what children in our society require — nurturing. How can they get it if we do not provide the essential social, political, cultural, and educational support that working parents need?

Stew Friedman is the Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School, founder of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, and the author of the international bestseller, Total Leadership, and, most recently, The Wall Street Journal bestseller, Leading The Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life.Tune in to his radio show, Work and Life, on Sirius XM 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Find him on Twitter @StewFriedman. And sign up for his newsletter.

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