Tag Archives: living arrangements

Are middle children going extinct?

In The Cut, Adam Sternbergh has a piece called, “The Extinction of the Middle Child They’re becoming an American rarity, just when America could use them the most.”

This is good for me to read, because I’ve been asked to include more material about sibling relationships in the next edition of my textbook, The Family, and it’s not my expertise. Thinking about sibling relationships is good, but the demography here is off. Sternberg writes:

According to a study by the Pew Research Center in 1976, “the average mother at the end of her childbearing years had given birth to more than three children.” Read that again: In the ’70s, four kids (or more) was the most common family unit. Back then, 40 percent of mothers between 40 and 44 had four or more children. Twenty-five percent had three kids; 24 percent had two; and 11 percent had one. Today, those numbers have essentially reversed. Nearly two-thirds of women with children now have two or one — i.e., an oldest, a youngest, but no middle.

It is true there are a lot fewer U.S. families with more than two children today than there were in 1976. However, by my reckoning (see below), in the most recent data (2016), 38 percent of mothers age 40-44 who have had any children have had three or more. So, there’s a middle child in more than a third of families. And, crucially, that number hasn’t dropped in the last 25 years. I’ll explain.

The best regular national survey for this is the Current Population Survey’s June Fertility Supplement, which is administered to a national sample by the Census Bureau more or less every two years. They ask women, “Altogether how many children have you ever given birth to?” The traditional way to measure total number of children born for a cohort of women is to take the average of that number for women who are ages 40-44. (I would rather do it at ages 45-49, but they didn’t always ask it for women over 44.)

This is what you get for the surveys from 1976 to 2016 (remember these are the years the women reached the end of their childbearing years).

birth order historyh.xlsx

You can see how it’s a little tricky. First, the biggest changes were over by the 1990s, when the last of the Baby Boom parents reached their forties (their first kids were born 25 years earlier). The biggest changes after that were in the number of women having no children, which rose until 2006 but then fell, possibly as access to fertility treatments improved. (Note in all this we’re calling all the children one woman has a “family,” but really it’s a sibling set; some will be living with other people and some will have died, so it’s not a measure of family life in the household sense of family. And it’s all based on children women have, so if there are different fathers in these families we wouldn’t know it, and if these children have half-siblings with a different mother we wouldn’t know it, but that’s the way it goes.)

It’s hard to see what this means for the prevalence of middle children in the country, because the no-children women aren’t relevant. So if your question is, “what proportion of families with children have any middle children?” you would want to do it like this, which excludes the childfree women, and combines all those with three or more:

birth order historyh.xlsx

This shows the big drop in middle-child families that Sternbergh started with, but it puts it in perspective: the change was over by the 1990s, and since then it’s been basically flat at 35+ percent. So, things have changed a lot from the days of the Baby Boom, but the same article could have been written, demographically speaking, in 1992. (Note that the drop in total fertility rate since 2008 [see this] hasn’t yet shown up in completed fertility since it’s among younger women.)

It’s not clear whether the unit of analysis should be the family or the child, however. This says 38 percent of women produce middle-child families. But how many children have the experience of being a middle child (defined as a child with at least one older and one younger sibling)? That might make more sense if you’re interested, as Sternbergh is, in the effect of middle children on the culture. So just multiplying out the number of children per woman, and counting the number of middle children as the total minus two for all sibships of three or more (I think I did it right), you get this:

birth order historyh.xlsx

(Again, this assumes no one died before their mother turned 44, which did change over this period, especially as violent crime rates among young men fell. You could do something fancy to estimate that.)

So, it looks to me that, for the last 25 years, about 20-25 percent of children have been middle children.

On the other hand, looking in the longer run — much further back than Sternbergh’s starting point of 1976 — it’s clear that the proportion of children growing up as middle children has declined drastically. One quick and dirty way to show that is in children’s living arrangements. The final figure uses Census data (decennial till 2000, then American Community Survey) to show how many children are living as the only child, one of two, a middle child, or as the oldest/youngest in a three-plus family. This is messy because it’s just whoever is living together at the moment. So this is answering a question more like, “what proportion of children at any given time are living with an older and a younger sibling?” Here’s the trend:

ceb4.jpg

(Note that, thanks to IPUMS.org coding, this does count people as having older siblings if the sibling is older than 18, as long as they’re living in the household. But I’m only including kids living in the household of at least one parent.)

Wow! In 1850 half of all U.S. children had an older and a younger sibling in the household with them. Now it’s below 20 percent. Still no drop since 1990, but the long-term change is impressive. So if all that personality stuff is true, then that’s a big difference between the olden days and nowadays. Definitely going to put this in the book.

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Old people are getting older and younger

The Pew Research Center recently put out a report on the share of U.S. older women living alone. The main finding they reported was a reversal in the long trend toward old women living alone after 1990. After rising to a peak of 38% in 1990, the share of women age 65+ living alone fell to 32% by 2014. It’s a big turnaround. The report attributes it in part to the rising life expectancy of men, so fewer old women are widowed.

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The tricky thing about this is the changing age distribution of the old population (the Pew report breaks the group down into 65-84 versus 85+, but doesn’t dwell on the changing relative size of those two groups). Here’s an additional breakdown, from the same Census data Pew used (from IPUMS.org), showing percent living alone by age for women:

pewage1

Two things in this figure: the percent living alone is much lower for the 65-69s, and the decline in living alone is much sharper in the older women.

The age distribution in the 65+ population has changed in two ways: in the long run it’s getting older as life expectancy at old age increases. However, the Baby Boom (born 1946-1964) started hitting age 65 in 2010, resulting in a big wave of 65-69s pouring into the 65+ population. You can see both trends in the following figure, which shows the age distribution of the 65+ women (the lines sum to 100%). The representation of 80+ women has doubled since 1960, showing longer life expectancy, but look at that spike in the 65-69s!

pewage2

Given this change in the trends, you can see that the decrease in living alone in the 65+ population partly reflects greater representation of young-old women in the population. These women are less likely to live alone because they’re more likely to still be married.

On the other hand, why is there such a steep drop in living alone among 80+ women? Some of this is the decline in widowhood as men live longer. But it’s an uphill climb, because among this group there is no Baby Boom spike of young-olds (yet) — the 80+ population is still just getting older and older. Here’s the age distribution among 80+ women (these sum to 100 again):

pewage3

You can see the falling share of 80-84s as the population ages. If this is the group that is less likely to live alone the most because their husbands are living longer, that’s pretty impressive, because the group is aging fast. One boost the not-alones get is that they are increasingly likely to live in extended households — since 1990 there’s been a 5% increase in them living in households of at least 3 people, from 13% to 18%. Finally, at this age you also have to look at the share living in nursing homes (some of whom seem to be counted as living alone and some not).

In addition to the interesting gerentological questions this all raises, it’s a good reminder that the Baby Boom can have sudden effects on within-group age distributions (as I discussed previously in this post on changing White mortality patterns). Everyone should check their within-group distributions when assessing trends over time.

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Grandparents day: Still no need to send a card

I felt guilty this afternoon when I noticed a lot of people clicking on this old post about Grandparents Day. I should have updated it sooner. Better late than never, here is the updated trend of children (ages 0-14) living in the households of their grandparents, by poverty status:

children living with grandparents.xlsx

It looks like that near-poor group may have been given a boost by the recession. But the trend is basically upward for everyone.

My comments from a few years ago are still OK:

Interestingly, as the figure shows, the jump in multigenerational living was greatest for the non-poor (those over 200% of the poverty line). In addition to fallout from job losses, one can imagine this includes families displaced by foreclosure and job loss, grandparents who can’t afford to move into retirement communities because they can’t sell their homes, and other complications of the real estate crash.

The children most likely to live with grandparents, however, are the near-poor — those between 100% and 200% of the poverty line. This might include a lot of would-be poor families in which the grandparents are employed, bringing the total family income over the poverty line.

My older research into multigenerational living produced compelling evidence that these arrangements are usually not a first choice in the U.S. these days — because the more money people have, the less likely they are to share housing. Still, the effect of all this could be more intergenerational solidarity and close relationships. But I wouldn’t assume that.

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