American women, single and married, are having more children later in life

January 23, 2018

Women—both married and single—are having children later in life than their mothers or grandmothers did. What’s more, today they are having more offspring than was the case just a dozen years ago, a report by Pew Research Center released on January 18 reveals.

Some 86% of women ages 40 to 44 are mothers now, a six-percentage-point increase over 2006, according to the Pew analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

And overall, women are having 2.07 children during their lives on average— up from 1.86 in 2006, the lowest number on record.

The recent rise in motherhood and fertility might seem to run counter to the notion that the U.S. is experiencing a post-recession “Baby Bust.” However, each trend is based on a different type of measurement. The analysis here is based on a cumulative measure of lifetime fertility (the number of births a woman has ever had); while reports of declining U.S. fertility are based on annual rates, which capture fertility at one point in time.

One factor driving down annual fertility rates is that women are becoming mothers later in life: The median age at which women become mothers in America is 26, compared with 23 in 1994. This change has been driven in part by declines in births to teens.

In the mid-1990s, about one-in-five women in their early 40s (22%) had given birth to a child prior to age 20; in 2014, that share had dropped to 13%.

That trend has carried over to women in their 20s: While slightly more than half (53%) of women in their early 40s in 1994 had become mothers by age 24, this share was 39% among those who were in this age group in 2014.

Pew points out, “The Great Recession intensified this shift toward later motherhood, which has been driven in the longer term by increases in educational attainment and women’s labor force participation, as well as delays in marriage.”

However, married or not, women are having babies. Indeed, as the share of women at the end of their childbearing years who have never wed has risen – from 9% in 1994 to 15% in 2014— a majority (55%) of those single women have had at least one child. This marks a dramatic change from two decades earlier, when roughly one-third (31%) of never-married women in their early 40s had given birth.

The share of never-married women in their early 40s who are mothers has risen across all educational levels, as well. As of 2014, 82% of women at the end of their childbearing years with a bachelor’s degree were mothers, compared with 76% of their counterparts in 1994.

And while 79% of women in their early 40s who have a master’s degree also have at least one child, this share was 71% 20 years earlier.

Interestingly enough, by far the most dramatic increase in motherhood has occurred among the relatively small group of women in their early 40s with a Ph.D. or professional degree—80% of whom are mothers. Among their predecessors, just 65% were.

Finally, among women who recently reached the end of their childbearing years, Hispanics are the most likely to have ever given birth: 90% have done so, compared with 85% of black women, 86% of Asian women and 83% of white women. This pattern is similar to that of women at the end of their childbearing years in the mid-1990s.

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