Will Women Catch Up to Their Fertility Expectations?

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In 2019, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) dipped to 1.71 children per woman, an all-time low and far below the replacement rate of 2.10 children.  Current levels of low fertility have important implications for the economy.  To assess fertility trends, demographers often look at fertility expectations.  Using this metric suggests no cause for concern.  Women in their early 30s today, when first asked about their childbearing expectations in their early 20s, expected to have more than two children, similar to previous cohorts.  But today’s 30-year-olds are much further from their 20-24 expectations than previous cohorts.  And a number of trends have emerged in recent years that could suggest lower fertility.  This project aims to shed light on whether women are likely to catch up to their fertility expectations and what factors influence their ability to do so.  The analysis uses a regression framework to examine factors that drive fertility after age 30 for an older cohort of women surveyed in the NLSY79.  The results are then used to predict the completed fertility for the younger cohort of women surveyed in the NLSY97, who are in their early- to mid-30s and still in their childbearing years.

The paper found that:

  • Fertility expectations are the primary driver of achieved fertility for non-college graduates.
  • For college-educated women, other factors such as religion, marital status, and career length affect whether they achieve their fertility expectations.
  • Women in the NLSY97 (born in 1980-1984) are projected to have a total of 1.96 children.
  • This means that the gap between childbearing expectations in their early 20s and completed fertility will increase to 0.48, much higher than historical averages of 0.30.

The policy implications of the findings are:

  • While the results seem to suggest that the current 1.71 TFR is capturing tempo effects from delayed childbearing, long-run fertility may be lower than 1.96 for several reasons.
    • The results are based on the 1980-1984 cohort, but younger cohorts may have fewer children because they have lower fertility expectations and face more economic uncertainty.
    • The gap might also grow since COVID-19 is likely to place downward pressure on fertility, both for the cohort studied and for younger women.
  • Therefore, while the current 1.71 TFR may reflect delayed fertility, actual completed fertility, especially for younger cohorts, might be lower than 1.96.