I recently went to a party hosted by an overachiever for an overachiever attended by overachievers. It was a typically intimidating affair in the nation’s capital, one of the “brainiest” cities in the country in terms of college degrees per capita. The august company included a Harvard-educated policy wonk, a senior diplomat, a World Bank consultant, and, this being Washington, a gaggle of lawyers.
The first impression made by these cosmopolitan thirty-somethings was not their considerable ambition or intellect or fantastically exotic vacation plans. It was their children. Many had toddlers. Adorable, one and all, they mingled happily with the guests and with each other, keeping us all entertained.
Newborns are not new to me. I have none of my own but many of my contemporaries do. Life progresses in stages, and for those in my age bracket, this is the childbearing age. It came earlier for past generations: The average age of first-time mothers increased from roughly 21 to 25 between 1970 and 2006. Bear in mind that this is an average; when controlling for socio-economic class, the age of first-time childbearing climbs significantly. Delaying childbearing impacts overall fertility rates as it narrows women’s reproductive window. Indeed, America’s aggregate fertility rate now hovers around the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.
There is reason to celebrate this trend. One major contributor has been the rising status of women, whose “work” once was primarily to churn out and rear children. No more. For the first time in US history, females now constitute the majority of the labor force. Moreover, one in five married couples where both spouses are in the workforce—over eighty percent of all unions—women actually earn more than their husbands, up from four percent of such marriages 40 years ago. Women’s rising status is also evident in academia. One hundred forty-two bachelor degrees are conferred on females for every 100 conferred on males. Such disparities exist at all levels of higher education. In the not too distant future, men may well be considered a minority deserving special consideration by admissions boards.
But women are also putting off having children for more troubling reasons. One relates to economics. That the standard of living of all Americans has stagnated is well documented: ninety percent of the population has not seen significant growth in its wages in real terms since 1973, and the Great Recession is sure to prolong the 37-year stagnation. During the golden age of American affluence, one income could provide a middle-class lifestyle to an entire household. Now it’s more likely to take two. Having a child often reduces a household to one breadwinner, at least temporarily, when two are needed—no small matter when 80 percent of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
There are other indications of economic strain that impact fertility rates. The anchors of the middle class, like housing, education, and healthcare, are more expensive than ever. So are, for that matter, fantastically exotic vacations. Not surprisingly, middle-income Americans have taken on more debt to finance their lifestyle: Between 1983 and 2004 their debt-to-income ratio more than doubled. Which brings me back to the overachievers’ get-together.
Signs of economic stress were evident even among these upwardly mobile cosmopolitans. The party’s hosts, a lawyer and a college professor, parents of three young children, were renting out several rooms in their townhouse, as was their neighbor, another lawyer. As for that World Bank consultant, he and his wife, who also works, had just managed to purchase a house after saving for years. A child, they hoped, would follow. Even those party-goers who did not exhibit any other outward signs of economic stress had delayed having children well into their thirties, hinting that they were not immune from dollar and cents calculations.
This is hardly a sob story, of course: The economic travails of the upwardly mobile should not be confused with the dire struggles of America’s working class, whose plight is impacted far more seriously than the inconvenience of putting off having children by a few years. Nor, for that matter, is delayed childbearing by the middle class only the result of declining income. But it is one sign of it—one sign that, even for cosmopolitan overachievers the American Dream is tarnished. Then again, as the late-George Carlin put it long ago, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”