In 1960 almost half of all households were families with children under 18. Since then, the number has fallen to under 30 percent (Figure 1). By definition, the declining share of family households with children exists because households without children have increased more rapidly (Figure 2). There are many reasons for this trend: delayed age at marriage and later age at childbearing, smaller family sizes, higher divorce rates, and more couples choosing not to have children (Table 1). The changes in each of these measures over the last few decades are quite striking. In 1960 the median age at first marriage was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women, compared to 28.6 and 26.6 in 2012. The share of households with four or more people in 1960 was over 40 percent, falling to just under 23 percent in 2012. Women who were 25 in 1960 ended their childbearing years in the mid 1980s with only 8.5 percent of them remaining childless. Women born in 1960 finished childbearing in 2010 with nearly twice as many of them childless (16.3 percent). In 1960, only 13 percent of all households were single persons, but by 2012 that percentage had risen to 28. All of these trends result in households having fewer children and fewer households having any children at all. (Click charts to enlarge.)
Source: Census Bureau Current Population Survey historical tables.
The interesting aspect of this long-term trend is that it continued in spite of the strong upswing in the sheer number of American children, which grew after 1990 (also Figure 1). That increase is due to the largest baby boomers having their own children (the echo boom) and to childbearing by the flood of immigrants who arrived between 1985 and 2005. (Note that in 2012, fully 87.5 percent of children under the age of 18 who have an immigrant parent were themselves born in this country.)
To be sure, baby boomer and immigrant childbearing did increase the actual number of households with children. For example, the number of households with children under the age of 18 increased from 33.3 million in 1985 to 38.6 million in 2012. This 5.3 million increase was far less than the 11.3 million increase in total number of children in the population over this period because many households with children contained two or more children under the age of 18. More importantly, however, the increase in households without children surpassed the 5.3 million growth of households with children by a considerable margin.
Two key reasons for the recent increase in childless households have been the aging of the population and increasing longevity. The large baby boom generation (age 45-64 in 2010) is now entering the empty nest stage (at least regarding children under 18). Between 2002 and 2012, households with at least one child, headed by today’s 45-64 year old cohort, declined by 12.3 million. There are still 11.5 million 45-64 year old headed households with children, and most will become households without children over the next decade. Furthermore, empty nest households headed by those over the age of 65 are surviving longer and longer, making it likely that the trend in the decline of households with children will continue well into the future.
Significantly, the decline in the number of households with children accelerated after 2007. Much of the decline can be explained by the sharp drop in the number of births. Annual births rose from just over 4 million in 2001 to over 4.3 million in 2007, the highest on historical record, but then fell to just below 4 million in 2011. The total fertility rate (births per 1000 women age 15-44) fell from 69.5 (a 17 year high) to 64.4, a decline of 7.3 percent over this same period. Both the decline in births and the drop in the fertility rate are linked to the decline in immigration that followed the Great Recession. Because newly arrived immigrants are concentrated in the childbearing ages, and because immigrants have higher fertility than the native born, the loss of immigrants has had a disproportional effect on declining fertility. The effect of the Great Recession on lowering fertility among the native born is also of importance, but this decline could be temporary. The echo boom generation began to turn 25 in 2010, and has most of its childbearing years yet ahead of it. A return to higher levels of immigration and/or a rebound in fertility could reverse the decline in number of births and ease the long-term decline in the share of households with children, but will not likely reverse it.