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The early years of adulthood are supposed to be a time of optimism and hope, but for many Americans now in their 20s it has instead been a period of uncertainty and frustration.
Hobbled by student loan debt, frustrated by careers that have been stymied by a weak job market — and frightened by watching their own parents suffer financial setbacks — many say they feel like they are getting off to a slow start. Even as the economy improves, that’s left some Millennials wondering if they’ll ever feel financially comfortable enough to have kids of their own.
“The American Dream is … OK, we go to school, we graduate, we get good jobs, we buy a house, we have kids,” said Daniel Flores, 27. “And it’s just like none of that has happened.”
Flores and his wife, Karlee, grew up in religious homes, got married soon after graduating from college and assumed that they would also be young parents.
Instead, the Salem, Ore., couple has started to wonder if parenthood is in the cards for them at all.
“We don't see it penciling out,” Karlee, also 27, wrote in an e-mail to TODAY.
The U.S. birth rate has generally fallen since the Great Recession began in 2007, and some of the sharpest drops have been among women in the 20s. The birth rate for women ages 20 to 24 hit a record low of 85.3 births per 1,000 women in 2011, according to the most recent detailed data available from the Centers for Disease Control. For women ages 25 to 29, the 2011 birth rate of 107.2 births per 1,000 women was the lowest since 1976.
The drop comes amid a longer term trend toward women having their children later in life. The average age for a woman having her first child was 25.6 years old in 2011, up from 21.4 years old in 1970, according to the CDC.
It also has coincided with an excruciatingly long period of high unemployment and weak economic growth.
Economists say the slump has meant that some people in their 20s are getting a slower start on landing a career-track job, or a job at all. That can have a lifelong impact on earnings, and it also can also mean that it takes longer to feel financially ready for other big steps, such as buying a house, getting married and having children.
“Some of this postponement is for a good reason, which is that younger adults are more likely to be well-educated, and as a college graduate you’re going to get into the labor market and start earning money later,” said D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center. “But certainly there are some trends that are worrisome and could signal that their wealth over their lifetime could be affected.”
It’s not uncommon for women to put off having children when a recession hits, and in the past experts say that women have usually made up for that drop when the economy improved.
“The only time that, historically in the United States, we’ve seen that the economy actually reduced childbearing in a way that catch-up didn’t occur was in the Great Depression,” said Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate with the Guttmacher Institute. “And even then, you had the Baby Boom following it.”
Daniel Schneider, a health policy research scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, said his research has shown that much of the recent drop in birth rates has been among younger women who haven’t yet had their first child. Past research has shown that women who delay their first birth, as opposed to later births, tend to end up having as many kids as they might have otherwise.
But he cautions that there’s no guarantee that will happen this time. Schneider notes that many people appear to have put off having kids not because of their own job loss or other setback, but because of the fear and uncertainty about whether they could be the next to get a pink slip or eviction notice.
“There’s no way that the whole birth dearth has been driven by only the foreclosed, or only the unemployed,” he said.
It’s not clear when those would-be parents will start to feel secure enough that their situation won’t sour to take the huge economic plunge of having children.
‘You don’t understand my financial situation’
Karlee Flores and her husband say they often get asked when they are going to have kids. When they demur and say they don’t feel financially ready, Daniel said they frequently get the same advice: If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never have kids.
Hearing that, Daniel said he’s often tempted to reply, “I understand that, but you don’t know my financial situation.”
Daniel is currently making about $17 an hour as a case manager for the Oregon division of child support. Karlee makes about $13 an hour as a business manager for a carpet company.
Both say they are grateful for their jobs. But Daniel, especially, said he still feels like he is trying to find the type of career-track job that would allow him to make enough money so that Karlee could stay home with their children.
The couple also has about $60,000 in combined student loan debt, and their monthly student loan payments are one reason they are living paycheck to paycheck. On their current salaries, they can’t imagine adding hundreds of dollars a month in child care expenses.
In the past, Lindberg said many couples like the Floreses could count on a grandparent to help out with child rearing. But these days, many grandparents live far away – or are still working themselves.
Karlee and Daniel say their parents are eager to become grandparents but also have suffered through job losses of their own as a result of the recession. That means they will likely still be working for years to come.
Sometimes, the couple looks at friends who have had kids and wonder if they are being overly cautious. As Christians, they say they feel a lot of pressure to start a family, but also find peace in the idea that God has a plan for them.
“Our happiness doesn’t solely rely on whether we’re going to have kids or not have kids,” Daniel said.