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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Are America's "Elite" Women Ramping Up Their Fertility?

Thanks to Justin Stoler for pointing out a news item from generated by a paper just published in the Journal of Population Economics. The authors--Qingyan Shang of The University at Buffalo and Bruce Weinberg of The Ohio State University--have found evidence that highly educated women in the United States have been having more children than in the past. The negative relationship between fertility and education is about as close to an "iron law" as you will find in demography, so this is very interesting news.

While it is still too early to be certain, research clearly shows fertility rising for older, highly educated women since the 1990s. (Fertility is defined as the number of children a woman has had.) Childlessness also declined by roughly 5 percentage points between 1998 and 2008.
“Women born in the late 1950s are the turning point,” says Qingyan Shang, assistant professor of economics at the University at Buffalo. Members of this group initially showed low fertility. But fertility increased for them when they reached their late 30s and early 40s.
The analysis pulled together data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey along with Vital Statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics of the US Centers for Disease Control.
The research did not directly address what factors might be contributing to the fertility increase. “We did list some possible explanations based on previous research,” says Shang, including the idea of “the learning story,” in which decisions of previous generations inform later decisions by subsequent generations.
There has also been an increased supply of personal services that have reduced childcare expenses. Other research shows men may be taking more responsibility for child care.Whether women are choosing families instead of or in addition to their careers is unclear, Shang says.“We know these women are opting for families. We don’t know if they in turn are opting out of the labor market.”The study also indicated an increase in multiple birth rates around 1990, suggesting fertility treatments may have played a role.
There is a lot of food for thought here, which should inspire follow-on research efforts. In the past, women really had to make a choice between education--especially if that was used to launch a career--and the number of children. More help around the house and more help from reproductive biology may be changing this dynamic.

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