When Melissa Singleton graduated from college in 2007, she wanted to focus on her career as a programmer analyst, which was already well underway having got her foot in the door working at Boeing Co. while a student.
After getting married a few years later, she and her husband, D.J., — also a Boeing employee — moved back and forth from Boeing’s office in Long Beach, Calif., to its location in Seattle. They also operated a dance-and-fitness studio in Long Beach.
“I knew I always wanted kids,” Singleton said, “but D.J. and I were just enjoying life, traveling and being together and enjoying our independence.”
In 2014, Singleton relocated with Boeing to St. Louis. After getting established in the city, and with her husband launching his personal-training and fitness-apparel business, she decided it was time.
In January — 12 days after her 34th birthday — she gave birth to Melodi-Rogue Singleton, part of a trend that is giving hope the United States will avert a population crisis.
Women in their 30s are having babies at the highest rate since the 1960s, providing a rare bright spot in what’s an otherwise stagnating U.S. population.
For women in their early 30s, the birthrate in 2015 was the highest it’s been since 1964, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report this year. And the rate for women ages 35-39 was the highest since 1962, when families were larger and births hit near all-time highs in the baby-boom years.
At the same time, the total number of births to women ages 30-39 has increased in all states except Connecticut, New Hampshire and New Jersey from 2007 to 2015, according to a Stateline analysis of National Center for Health Statistics data. And births to 30-somethings accounted for the majority of all births in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.
In Missouri, the analysis showed, the number of births to women in their 30s increased 17.3 percent, while births among other age groups dropped by 18.4 percent. Overall in Missouri, the total number of births dropped, to 75,060 in 2015 from 81,930 in 2007.
Putting off parenthood
Although hardly a baby boomlet, the higher birthrates among older women help offset a decline in births among younger women ages 15-24. And they suggest that younger women who are putting off parenthood now may embrace it as they get older, finish their education, establish careers and become more financially secure.
“Fertility is being displaced later and later into the lives of women, especially educated women, and more and more women are educated,” said Herbert Smith, director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ness Sandoval, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at St. Louis University, says we may be seeing the end of a “domino effect” that has been coupled with improvements in assisted reproductive technology and access to birth control that has allowed women to have children later in life when they are better prepared economically and socially.
“We have seen a decline when women have that first birth,” Sandovoal said. “When women are able to avoid having that first birth in their teenage years, that gives them more opportunity to go to school and get an education. … When you have an education, you postpone other demographic transitions, and the ones you postpone are marriage and childbirth.”
If the trend of more women having babies in their 30s continues, it also holds out hope that the nation can partly replenish its workforce — a development that could prove even more crucial if President Donald Trump follows through on his campaign promises to limit immigration.
As the baby-boom generation ages out of the workplace, the nation has depended on immigration to keep its population growing and to maintain its workforce amid declining birthrates. Without a steady supply of new immigrants, who have higher fertility rates than native-born women, the nation’s workforce will start shrinking and could drop over the next 20 years, according to a report this month from the Pew Research Center. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline).
Sarah Lacy, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, points out that the population of Missouri has gotten older and whiter than other parts of the country that have added more Hispanic immigrants. “If the state is getting older, you are already pushing the fertility numbers back because younger people are living elsewhere,” Lacy said.
A shrinking workforce could be part of a “downward spiral” affecting state economies, according to some projections, if states are unable to get people to fill jobs and pay taxes.
Overall fertility rates in the U.S. are at a historic low of 62.5 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, 15 to 44, despite the high rates for women in their 30s. There were about 4 million births in 2014 and in 2015, still well below a 2007 peak of 4.3 million and an earlier peak in 1991, when about 4.2 million millennials — the generation born between 1981 and 1997 — were born.
Fertility rates for teenagers and women in their early 20s were at historic lows in 2015. And babies born to 25- to 29-year-olds decreased every year between 2008 and 2013, although they increased by 25,000 in 2014 and by 7,000 in 2015.
The spike in births to older women may help temporarily, if immigration falls off under the Trump administration, said Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba, an associate professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. But postponing childbirth will not add to the population long term because U.S. women are not having enough babies over the course of their lifetimes to do that, she said.
Choosing to be childless
Despite worries that less immigration would result in a smaller working-age population, some advocates of limiting immigration see that outcome as more desirable.
“America’s problem is not a low working-age population,” said Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates less immigration and endorses Trump’s promised crackdown. “It’s the number of working-age people who aren’t working.
“Everybody agrees that a lot of blue-collar workers have lost jobs and their wages are dropping. In that context, does it make sense to keep bringing in more immigrants?” he asked.
Some population analysts see a generational change among millennials, who they say are not just putting off childbirth but choosing not to do it at all.
However, the continued increase in rates for women in their 30s suggests that starting families might have been delayed by the economy rather than ruled out entirely.
“As the economy picks up, it could well be that 30-something millennials will finally begin having children after their recession-related delays,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “This would continue to prop up later-age fertility rates and contribute to family related consumerism.”
If millennial women who are now in their 20s have more children later in life, the number of births could keep rising until at least 2024, when the largest group of them turns 35.
In the class Lacy teaches at UMSL, called “anthropology of pregnancy and birth,” she discusses how older millennials are putting off starting families because of the 2007-2009 recession and their large amount of student debt.
At age 31, Lacy also knows this firsthand. When she graduated from Tulane University in 2008 to a dismal job market, she returned to school to earn her doctorate . With only three years of earning income under her belt and halfway into trying to earn tenure, she will be one to have a baby later in life.
“I would want them to have a life as nice as I had growing up,” she said, “and I wouldn’t be able to provide that right now.”
Michele Munz of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Stateline.org is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts
Birthrates in Missouri
Birthrates by age in Missouri
|Source: CDC and Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services|
Birthrates in Illinois