Fertility trends and the myth of Millennials

The other day I showed trends in employment and marriage rates, and made the argument that the generational term “Millennial” and others are not useful: they are imposed before analyzing data and then trends are shoe-horned into the categories. When you look closely you see that the delineation of “generations” is arbitrary and usually wrong.

Here’s another example: fertility patterns. By the definition of “Millennial” used by Pew and others, the generation is supposed to have begun with those born after 1980. When you look at birth rates, however,  you see a dramatic disruption within that group, possibly triggered by the timing of the 2009 recession in their formative years.

I do this by using the American Community Survey, conducted annually from 2001 to 2015, which asks women if they have had a birth in the previous year. The samples are very large, with all the data points shown including at least 8,000 women and most including more than 60,000.

The figure below shows the birth rates by age for women across six five-year birth cohorts. The dots on each line mark the age at which the midpoint of each cohort reached 2009. The oldest three groups are supposed to be “Generation X.” The three youngest groups shown in yellow, blue, and green — those born 1980-84, 1985-89, and 1990-94 — are all Millennials according to the common myth. But look how their experience differs!

cohort birth rates ACS.xlsx

Most of the fertility effect on the recession was felt at young ages, as women postponed births. The oldest Millennial group was in their late twenties when the recession hit, and it appears their fertility was not dramatically affected. The 1985-89 group clearly took a big hit before rebounding. And the youngest group started their childbearing years under the burden of the economic crisis, and if that curve at 25 holds they will not recover. Within this arbitrarily-constructed “generation” is a great divergence of experience driven by the timing of the great recession within their early childbearing years.

You could collapse these these six arbitrary birth cohorts into two arbitrary “generations,” and you would see some of the difference I describe. I did that for you in the next figure, which is made from the same data. And you could make up some story about the character and personality of Millennials versus previous generations to fit that data, but you would be losing a lot of information to do that.

cohort birth rates ACS.xlsx

Of course, any categories reduce information — even single years of age — so that’s OK. The problem is when you treat the boundaries between categories as meaningful before you look at the data — in the absence of evidence that they are real with regard to the question at hand.

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