Yet today, 86 percent of women ages 40 to 44 — near the end of their reproductive years — are mothers, up from 80 percent in 2006, reversing decades of declines, according to a new analysis of census data by Pew Research Center.
The increase has been especially steep among groups of women who hadn’t been having as many babies in the past: those with advanced degrees, and those who have never been married. Today, 55 percent of never-married women ages 40 to 44 have at least one child, up from 31 percent two decades ago, Pew found.
The share of women who have children could drop again if current trends continue. Women are planning to have children at later ages, when they are more likely to have trouble conceiving. And the fertility rate has not rebounded after the recession in the way that many economists expected: The number of babies born per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2016, the last year for which we have official data, was a record low.
Demographic experts and some conservatives have been sounding alarms about falling fertility rates. If young women continue to decide not to have children, or if they struggle to do so after waiting too long, it could depress the economy and fray the safety net. There would be fewer workers to support retirees, and fewer family members to care for older people — problems faced by other countries with falling fertility, like Japan.
Yet the new data offer some optimism about the fertility picture. By one retrospective measure, at least, women are more likely to have children today than they were a decade ago. The measure is called completed fertility, or the share of women who are now 40 to 44 who have had a baby. It looks at the whole of women’s reproductive lives, not just one year, and reflects what they actually did, not what they were projected to do. (The vast majority of women do not have babies after age 44, so this is the age researchers commonly use.)
The biggest increases in motherhood since the 1990s were in groups of women with higher education. While women without college degrees have always been highly likely to have a child, women with college or advanced degrees had been less so, until recent years.
Now, 80 percent of women with professional degrees or doctorates have a child by the time they are 44, compared with 65 percent two decades ago, perhaps indicating that fewer women see long educations or demanding careers as a bar to having a family. Meanwhile, motherhood among women who have never married has risen across racial and educational groups.
In the mid-1990s, it was almost unheard-of for a never-married woman in her early 40s with a postgraduate degree to have a child, according to the Pew report. Today, 25 percent of women who fit that profile do.
Women who are 40 to 44 also planned their families during a different atmosphere for childbearing, since many of them had children in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The economy was strong, and in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive technologies were becoming more accessible and successful.
Fertility data is more complicated than it might seem because there are many ways to measure fertility rates, and each gives a different snapshot. The general fertility rate measures the number of births for every 1,000 women of childbearing age in a given year, and the total fertility rate estimates how many children women will have based on current patterns.
Both have been declining. The general fertility rate in the United States is at a record low, and the total fertility rate in the United States is down to 1.84 births per woman.
Completed fertility — the share of women who give birth by the time they are 44 — peaked in the late 1970s, when baby boomers were having children. It declined to a low in 2006 before rising again, and is now near the level of the late 1970s.
One thing complicating measurement is that people are delaying childbirth. Though the overall general fertility rate decreased in 2016, it increased for women 30 and older.
The median age at which women first give birth has risen to 26, and women are significantly less likely than they were two decades ago to give birth as teenagers or in their early 20s, and more likely to do so in their 40s, Pew reported.
There are lots of explanations for why people are waiting to have children: later marriage, student debt; stagnant wages; recovery from the recession; more education and improved job prospects for women; and a lack of support for families in which both parents work.
It might be that most of these women end up having children, and completed fertility continues to rise. But the ability to conceive and have a baby decreases with age, and fertility treatments are expensive. There is some evidence that women say they want to have more children than they end up having.
Despite the Pew findings, Lyman Stone, an adviser at Demographic Intelligence who writes about demographics and economics, remains concerned about the national birthrate. “The extent of the delay and decline in fertility for younger women is so vast that to recover it in later years sort of boggles the mind,” he said.