According to the recently released book, Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family by Stewart Friedman, it summarizes a cross-generational study of college students that  produced a “stark discovery: the rate of graduates who plan to have children has dropped by nearly half over the past 20 years.”

In tracking the childfree choice since the late 90s this is the first study I’ve seen of this kind. The study was conducted by the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It surveyed 496 members of the 1992 Wharton undergraduate class, then surveyed 307 of the 2012 graduating class.

Some highlights of results:

  • In response to the question, Do you plan to have children?:

-In 1992, 79% of women said yes, 12% said probably, and 3% said probably not or no;
-In 2012, 41% of women said yes, 14% said probably, and 27% said probably not or no
-In 1992, 78% of men said yes, 9% said probably, 6% said probably not or no
-In 2012, 42% of men said yes, 12% said probably, 30% said probably not or no

Talk about a drop!

  • “The baby bust, in short, is not about young people forming smaller nuclear families, that is, with fewer children. It is about many who say they are simply opting out of parenthood altogether.”
  • “Being a parent is still very important for most young people, but many just don’t see how they can manage it, so they are planning to live without children.”
  • “ …for Millennials, being a man is no longer inextricably linked to being a breadwinner father, and being a woman is no longer synonymous with motherhood.”
  • “..young women who expected their jobs in 10 years in the future to provide the chance to serve others were significantly less likely to plan to become mothers.”
  • “Social consciousness now competes with motherhood: making a contribution to the world has become an increasingly common means for women to achieve a sense of meaning and purpose.”
  • In 1992…“helping others meant being a mother.” By 2012 young women feel “less constrained by the societal expectation that to be a good, caring and nurturing woman means one has to bear and care for one’s own children.”
  • Friedman states that both generations of women are nurturers, but today the nature of that nurturing is “taking different forms.”
  • Men in both samples who wanted to make a social impact anticipating doing so in part by rearing the next generation.
  • There is a changing tide to seeing parenthood as the selfish choice, and the reality that “women are increasingly focusing on social involvement through achievement of goals other than the pursuit of children.”  A desire and value on helping others does not automatically mean motherhood; it “means generating social impact through a successful career.”
  • The baby bust is in part an indication that the Millennial respondents are seeing they have the “freedom to choose.”
  • There is progress regarding redefining family: Friedman writes the Millennial respondents see “having a family and being a parent are no longer synonymous.”


Overall Friedman seems to conclude that most young people value parenthood but this does not mean they think they will actually become parents.  They see a variety of things getting in the way, like career priority, debt and other financial considerations.

I took a look at the survey items, and for those who said they don’t plan to become parents or think they probably won’t become them, in both groups respondents were not given a chance to answer questions directly related to their level of desire to become parents. For example, if they had little debt, would they plan to have them? Under what circumstances might they change their mind and why? What percentage of the “probably not” and “no” respondents would say it just boiled down to a lack of desire to parent?

I am also left wondering about those who responded they don’t value parenting or rate it as important – why do they think so?

The surveys and findings seem to focus on examining the various social and societal factors that get in the way of parenthood, and not an equal examination of when these factors don’t matter.

The discussion on how we are all part of the “work/life revolution” also takes a parenthood-biased view. When referring to “life” the discussion essentially means parenthood.

A parenthood biased view is also seen through Friedman’s view on population: “There are few imperatives on which I don’t think many will disagree: We need to continue replacing the human population, and children will still need caretakers to lovingly attend to them, educate them, and support them…” There are many experts who would disagree that replacement is not the solution to population growth and overpopulation!

While the 2012 group reveal that both genders are not as bound by traditional gender roles and norms and seem “better prepared to forge their own paths,” the work/life strategies he lays out for the future focus on a baby priority future, including “world class childcare” and “making family leave available.”  In keeping with the shifting of norms this discussion should include treating people with and without children equally in the workplace. Things like “family leave” should shift to Personal Time Off (PTO) policies, not policies that automatically favor parents and children.

Friedman does suggest primary and secondary educational strategies to “teach people how to lead their lives” and “ways to discover who they really want to be”  and in college have more courses that help students examine “what success means to them” so the will make more informed choices in their lives. An important part of this education is parenthood education, starting with the fact that it is optional- it is just as legitimate of a choice as choosing parenthood. It should not only include the realities of parenthood but examination of themselves and their level of desire, readiness, and what they need in order to become ready if they plan to have them.

While informative and worth the read…

…in many ways the survey and the discussion come from a pronatalist context.  And the sample needs to be kept in mind. They came from undergraduates of one of the world’s leading business schools – both are privileged samples and not representative of many slices of young people in society, so as Friedman writes, the generalizations of the results need to be made “cautiously.”

Yet the longitudinal nature of the study is an excellent idea. Now the more interesting longitudinal study would be to stay with the 2012 grads, see how their parenthood status stays the same or changes over time and why, and interpret findings through a post-pronatal societal lens.

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