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If you were to assess the state of the world by my Facebook page, everybody and their brother is getting pregnant or having babies at the moment. This makes sense: I turned 30 earlier this year and have been married for a little over two years. We've finished that all consuming wedding-every-weekend marathon that takes over your mid-to-late twenties. So, next up: Breeding. Right?
Well, maybe not.
While many of my friends are having babies, plenty of others just aren't. 43 percent of Generation X women and 32 percent of Xer men do not have children at all, reports "The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation," a new study from The Center for Work Life Policy in New York. The latest US Census data backs this up: Almost 50 percent of all American women of childbearing age are, well, not bearing children.
What's going on?
On the one hand: It's progress. Women are staying in school longer and pursuing more ambitious careers, and when having babies isn't the only thing on your life's to-do list, it makes sense that you might not do it first, or at all. The social stigma against childless couples and single people is also lessening a bit: As Susan Newman, PhD, points out on Psychology Today's Singleton Blog, you can be childless but still have kids in your life as an aunt or mentor. It's great that those feel like viable options now and not just sad sack consolation prizes. Also, a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center found that just 41 percent of Americans think that children are very important to a successful marriage, compared with 65 percent who felt that way in 1990.
On the other hand: It's not nearly enough progress. While it's great that going the no-kids route is becoming a respectable choice, these stats show that women are still being forced to choose between career and family -- it's just not always the assumed choice that it was in the 1950s. This is because the American workplace has yet to catch up to our new reality: Where women now make up just over half of the American workforce and increasing numbers of men plan to be equal partners in parenting. These are good things. Plenty of research shows that both work and the family benefits from gender parity.
But to really reap the rewards of this social progress, we need to give it a fair shot. This means that for an entire generation of workers, work needs to shift away from the old corporate model of "give us 60+ hours per week and also your soul." Employers need to figure out new models -- featuring key elements like maternity and paternity leave, flex time, job shares, swing shifts and so on -- that support both bottom lines and employees' desires to have families and careers.
Until that happens, my guess is, we'll see Generation X and Generation Y continuing to put the breaks on parenthood, opting for more single-child, smaller families -- or no kids at all.