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Why Fertility Rates Are Falling for Younger Women — And What It Could Mean for the DU Community

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Susan Dugan


Feature  •
Howard Markman

Howard Markman

Contrary to perceptions of dramatically declining U.S. birthrates, the latest Census Bureau Report reveals a gradually falling but relatively stable birthrate over time — with fertility rates declining for younger women and sharply rising for older women.

What does that mean for millennials and Gen Z? Why has the number of women and couples deciding to delay having children continued to rise? Are younger women and couples deciding to forgo parenthood altogether and if so, why? Could relationship education programs such as the PREP, (Prevention and Relationship Education Program) developed at DU influence couples’ decisions around parenthood?

The CAHSS newsroom asked Howard Markman, distinguished professor of psychology, director of DU’s Couples Therapy Clinic and coauthor of “Fighting for Your Marriage” to share his insights on the subject and its potential implications for the university community and beyond.

What are your thoughts about younger people, particularly the Gen Z population, choosing to delay or forgo parenthood? Is that a trend you’re seeing?

The most recent Census Bureau data shows the birthrate has fallen fairly substantially from 1990 to 2019, with a very slight uptick in 2020 to 2021 and, so far, for 2022 to 2023. The overall takeaway is that while there’s a fertility decline among Gen Z and millennials, there’s a sharp increase in birthrates in the post-35 age group. We’ll have to wait and see if that trend holds with Gen Z as they get older but there’s no doubt that the trend is toward a delay in getting married, a delay in having kids and an increase in the desire not to have kids.

In classes I teach at DU, over time most students say they want to be married and they want to have kids, but they want to do it later when they see themselves experiencing increased financial stability. And to the extent that there may be a slight decrease in the desire to have kids, it’s related to concern about bringing a child into the world situation including politics, climate change and uncertain economic conditions.

Another trend among Gen Z and other generations is the increase in cohabitation. In our Center for Marital and Family Studies we have discovered that couples who live together without plans to marry have a higher chance of relationship unhappiness and divorce compared to those who have plans to marry or do not cohabit before marriage. New research by Drs. Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades at our Couples Lab have replicated and extended this work in a new national study.  

Another concerning trend is the uptick in the hooking-up culture at DU and elsewhere. As we have discussed in my classes, given that most hookups occur when one or both people are under the influence of alcohol, consent by both people is often nonexistent leading to unwanted sexual advances.

The concerns about bringing a child into an unstable world have been around a long time. Do millennials or members of Gen Z show characteristics that make them more apt to allow such factors to affect their decisions about having children?

We know that Gen Z in particular is more socially aware, active and motivated to change what’s going on in the world than previous generations. You’d have to go back to a subset of baby boomers in the 1960s to parallel that.

The average age of marriage has risen from 26 to 27 to 29 to 30 and the average age of having kids over time has also increased in the last decade or two. Both trends are likely to increase over time.

Members of Gen Z are still younger than the average age of getting married and the average age of having kids. As Gen Z people see that their actions are making a difference, I predict their desire to have kids will increase along with their sense of optimism about the future. If things really bottom out, then I think they’ll be less likely to have kids.

A lot of polls and articles about younger people forgoing having children focus on individuals who are in a relationship but may not be in a relationship with the person they’re going to consider having kids with or marry. So, the quality of relationships makes a difference, and that’s where our work comes in. I am hoping that younger people are more likely to attend the relationship education programs we offer like the PREP program, and that’s also going to make people more optimistic about having a successful relationship and more likely to get married and to have kids.

Since younger people may be more likely to participate in the relationship education programs DU offers, does that mean they’re more comfortable with self-help and mental health in general?

Well, that’s certainly a big reason. I’m not really talking about counseling or treatment but, yes, I think younger generations would be more likely to take advantage of various mental health services that would enhance wellbeing. But there’s also a change to a more preventive orientation, the idea that there are resources that will increase their chances of having a successful relationship rather than waiting for problems to develop.  

Research at the Couples Lab at DU and in other settings has revealed many of the secrets of having a heathy relationship including the importance of fun, support, friendship, conflict management, sensual connections and commitment.

Does gender identity and sexual-orientation diversity affect people wanting to delay or forgo having children?

I think that the decision to have children is probably going to increase over time along with growing support for diversity in relationships, marriage and same-sex couples having kids. Gen Z students at DU are more accepting of people from diverse backgrounds, diverse sexual orientation and diverse gender orientation. In fact, we estimate that 30 percent of young women identify as bisexual, and this trend is increasing. Rates of intimate-partner violence (IPV) is concerningly high for all couples but people who identify as bisexual or trans have substantially higher rates of IPV.

Gen Z’s commitment to diversity and social change will hopefully lead to people feeling more accepted within their community and therefore more likely to put down roots, be in a long-term relationship, get married and have kids or have kids and then get married.

As these younger generations enter the workforce and move into positions of power, they’re also more likely to change the workplace to be more accepting of diversity and responsive to the needs of people who have a family in terms of things like maternity and paternity leave.

Are there any studies that have looked at the long-term wellbeing and happiness of couples who have children versus those who don’t?

Having a child is generally associated with a slight decrease in relationship happiness for couples that then has an upturn. Whether or not people have kids, data shows that people who are married are generally happier than people who are not. Married people live longer, have better health and earn more money. When you look at the U.S. Census report something like 84 percent of women in the 40-to-49 age group have children. So, there’s this large association between being married, having children and happiness. I would say that if you’re married and have kids, you’re likely to be happier than if you aren’t married and you don’t have kids.  

DU’s Couples Therapy Clinic and Center for Child and Family Psychology have immediate openings for affordable, research-based, in-person or remote therapy for couples, children, adolescents and parents in the Denver area. Call 303-871-3306 for more information.