Birth rates in the U.S. and other high-income countries fell during the Great Recession and have continued to decline in the decade since. These patterns have generated considerable concern about potential economic and social impacts—concern that is often expressed, at least by conservative commentators, with some variation of the question “Why aren’t young people having babies?” This question suggests that young adults just are not interested in having children. Our new work, however, paints a more complicated picture. Do people really want fewer children? Or, perhaps, are childbearing goals relatively unchanged from the past, but today’s young adults are having a harder time realizing their goals?

Answering these questions is harder than one might think—it requires information on people’s childbearing goals at multiple time points, to compare young people today to those in the past, and it requires following those same people over time to see what happened. Not a lot of data or surveys do that, so we had to get creative in our new paper in Population and Development Review. A federal survey in the U.S., the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), has been asking people about their childbearing goals and behaviors periodically for decades. The NSFG doesn’t collect data from the same exact people every time, but it does allow us to track what’s happening, on average, among a group (or cohort) of people all born around the same time as they passed through the childbearing years. We were able to look at 13 cohorts of women and 10 cohorts of men (because men weren’t added to the survey until about 20 years ago), born between the 1960s and the 2000s, and track whether members of those groups intended to have any children and the average number of children they intended.

We found remarkable consistency in childbearing goals across cohorts. For instance, the first cohort of aged 20–24 who were in the data were born in 1960–64; about 5% of them did not intend to have any children, and, on average, these women intended 2.4 children. The most recent group of women in their early 20s who we observe were born in 1995–99. About 16% of these women did not intend to have any children, with an average of 2.1 children intended. The story is similar for young men; the earliest group of men in their early 20s were born in 1975–79, and about 8% of them intended to have no children, and the average number of children they intended was 2.3. Among young men born 20 years later, about 14% intended to have no children, and the average number they intended to have was 2.0. We see the same patterns for older ages and other cohorts. Over and over, the story is that most Americans intend to have children, and they intend to have about two children. This is true even with modest increases in the share of people who do not intend to have children and modest declines in the average number of children men and women intend to have among those who entered into, or experienced more of their childbearing years, in the years following the Great Recession.

If childbearing goals haven’t changed much, but fewer births are happening, this suggests that it’s become harder for more recent cohorts to achieve their goals. We see this in our other projects. Another study in PDR looked at individuals who were surveyed during the Great Recession, when in their late 20s and early 30s, and who were interviewed again 10 years later. During the Recession, most people either already had, or intended to have, two children. But when re-interviewed later, in their late 30s and early 40s, many still had not reached the intended family size they had planned earlier, especially those who hadn’t had children by the Great Recession; many of those who had not reached their earlier goal were either still considering or planning to have a child. This suggests that a substantial portion of those in their childbearing years face obstacles to fulfilling their goals. Certainly, some may change their minds about having children, and still others may never have felt particularly strongly about it in the first place. Nonetheless, we consider this mismatch between the number of children people say they plan to have and how many they actually have—either at the population level or among specific individuals—a symptom of a larger problem, or set of problems, rather than the problem itself. How can we produce the conditions in which people can feel confident in following through with their plans to have children?