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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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Two examples of why “Millennials” is wrong

When you make up “generation” labels for arbitrary groups based on year of birth, and start attributing personality traits, behaviors, and experiences to them as if they are an actual group, you add more noise than light to our understanding of social trends.

According to generation-guru Pew Research, “millennials” are born during the years 1981-1997. A Pew essay explaining the generations carefully explains that the divisions are arbitrary, and then proceeds to analyze data according to these divisions as if are already real. (In fact, in the one place the essay talks about differences within generations, with regard to political attitudes, it’s clear that there is no political consistency within them, as they have to differentiate between “early” and “late” members of each “generation.”)

Amazingly, despite countless media reports on these “generations,” especially millennials, in a 2015 Pew survey only 40% of people who are supposed to be millennials could pick the name out of a lineup — that is, asked, “These are some commonly used names for generations. Which of these, if any, do you consider yourself to be?”, and then given the generation names (silent, baby boom, X, millennial), 40% of people born after 1980 picked “millennial.”

“What do they know?” You’re saying. “Millennials.

Two examples

The generational labels we’re currently saddled with create false divisions between groups that aren’t really groups, and then obscure important variation within the groups that are arbitrarily lumped together. Here is just one example: the employment experience of young men around the 2009 recession.

In this figure, I’ve taken three birth cohorts: men born four years apart in 1983, 1987, and 1991 — all “millennials” by the Pew definition. Using data from the 2001-2015 American Community Surveys via IPUMS.org, the figure shows their employment rates by age, with 2009 marked for each, coming at age 26, 22, and 18 respectively.

milemp

Each group took a big hit, but their recoveries look pretty different, with the earlier cohort not recovered as of 2015, while the youngest 1991 group bounced up to surpass the employment rates of the 1987s by age 24. Timing matters. I reckon the year they hit that great recession matters more in their lives than the arbitrary lumping of them all together compared with some other older “generations.”

Next, marriage rates. Here I use the Current Population Survey and analyze the percentage of young adults married by year of birth for people ages 18-29. This is from a regression that controls for year of age and sex, so it can be interpreted as marriage rates for young adults (click to enlarge).

gens-marriage

From the beginning of the Baby Boom generation to those born through 1987 (who turned 29 in 2016, the last year of CPS data), the marriage rate fell from 57% to 21%, or 36 percentage points. Most of that change, 22 points, occurred within the Baby Boom. The marriage experience of the “early” and “late” Baby Boomers is not comparable at all. The subsequent “generations” are also marked by continuously falling marriage rates, with no clear demarcation between the groups. (There is probably some fancy math someone could do to confirm that, with regard to marriage experience, group membership by these arbitrary criteria doesn’t tell you more than any other arbitrary grouping would.)

Anyway, there are lots of fascinating and important ways that birth cohort — or other cohort identifiers — matter in people’s lives. And we could learn more about them if we looked at the data before imposing the categories.

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Couple fact patterns about sexuality and attitudes

Working on the second edition of my book, The Family, involves updating facts as well as rethinking their presentation, and the choice of what to include. The only way I can do that is by making figures to look at myself. Here are some things I’ve worked up recently; they might not end up in the book, but I think they’re useful anyway.

1. Attitudes on sexuality and related family matters continue to grow more accepting or tolerant, but acceptance of homosexuality is growing faster than the others – at least those measured in the repeated Gallup surveys:

gallupmoral

2. Not surprisingly, there is wide divergence in the acceptance of homosexuality across religious groups. This uses the Pew Religious Landscape Study, which includes breakouts for atheists, agnostics, and two kinds of “nones,” or unaffiliated people — those for whom religion is important and those for whom it’s not:

relhomoaccept

3. Updated same-sex behavior and attraction figures from the National Survey of Family Growth. For some reason the NSFG reports don’t include the rates of same-sex partner behavior in the previous 12 months for women anymore, so I analyzed the data myself, and found a much lower rate of last-year behavior among women than they reported before (which, when I think about it, was unreasonably high – almost as high as the ever-had-same-sex-partner rates for women). Anyway, here it is:

nsfgsamesexupdate

FYI, people who follow me on Twitter get some of this stuff quicker; people who follow on Instagram get it later or not at all.

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On Asian-American earnings

In a previous post I showed that generalizations about Asian-American incomes often are misleading, as some groups have above-average incomes and some have below-average incomes (also, divorce rates) and that inequality within Asian-American groups was large as well. In this post I briefly expand that to show breakdowns in individual earnings by gender and national-origin group.

The point is basically the same: This category is usually not useful for economic statistics, and should usually be dropped for data on specific groups when possible.

Today’s news

What’s new is a Pew report by Eileen Patten showing trends in race and gender wage gaps. The report isn’t focused on Asian-American earnings, but they stand out in their charts. This led Charles Murray, who is fixated on what he believes is the genetic origin of Asian cognitive superiority, to tweet sarcastically, “Oppose Asian male privilege!” Here is one of Pew’s charts:

pewraceearn

The figure, using the Current Population Survey (CPS), shows Asian men earning about 14.5% more per hour than White men, and Asian women earning 11% more than White women. This is not wrong, exactly, but it’s not good information either, as I’ll argue below.

First a note on data

The CPS data is better for some labor force questions (including wages) than the American Community Survey, which is much larger. However, it’s too small a sample to get into detail on Asian subgroups (notice the Pew report doesn’t mention American Indians, an even smaller group). To do that I will need to activate the ACS, which is better for race/ethnic detail.

As a reminder, this is the “race” question on the 2014 American Community Survey, which I use for this post:

acsrace2014

There is no “Asian” or “Pacific Islander” box to check. So what do you do if you are thinking, “I’m Asian, what do I check?” The question is premised on that assumption that is not what you’re thinking. Instead, you choose from a list of national origins, which the Census Bureau then combines to make “Asian” (the first 7 boxes) and “Pacific Islander” (the last 3) categories. And you can check as many as you like, which is good because there’s a lot of intermarriage among Asians, and between Asians and other groups (mostly Whites). This is a lot like the Hispanic origin question, which also lists national origins — except that question is prefaced by the unifying phrase, “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?” before listing the options, each beginning with “Yes”, as in “Yes, Cuban.”

Although changes have not been announced, it is likely that future questions will combine the race and Hispanic-origin questions, and also preface the Asian categories with the umbrella term. This may mark the progress of getting Asian immigrants to internalize the American racial classification system, so that descendants from groups that in some cases have centuries-old cultural differentiation start to identify and label themselves as from the same racial group (who would have put Pakistanis and Japanese in the same “race” group 100 years ago?). It’s hard to make this progress, naturally, when so many people from these groups are immigrants — in my sample below, for example, 75% of the full-time, year-round workers are foreign-born.

Earnings

The problem with the earnings chart Pew posted, and which Charles Murray loved, is that it lumps all the different Asian-origin groups together. That is not crazy but it’s not really good. Of course every group has diversity within it, so any category masks differences, but in my opinion this Asian grouping is worse in that regard than most. If someone argued that all these groups see themselves as united under a common identity that would push me in the direction of dropping this complaint. In any event, the diversity is interesting even if you don’t object to the Pew/Census grouping.

Here are two breakouts. The first is immigration. As I noted, 75% of the full-time, year-round workers (excluding self-employed people, like Pew does) with an Asian/Pacific Islander (Asian for short) racial identification are foreign born. That ranges from less than 4% for Hawaiians, to around 20% for the White+Asian multiple-race people, to more than 90% for Asian Indian men. It turns out that the wage advantage is mostly concentrated among these immigrants. Here is a replication of the Pew chart using the ACS data (a little different because I had to use FTFY workers), using the same colors. On the left is their chart, on the right is the same data limited to US-born workers.

api1

Among the US-born workers the Asian male advantage is reduced from 14.5% to 4.2% (the women’s advantage is not much changed; as in Pew’s chart, Hispanics are a mutually exclusive category.) There are some very high-earning Asian immigrants, especially Indians. Here are the breakdowns, by gender, comparing each of the larger Asian-American groups to Whites:

api2

Seven groups of men and nine groups of women have hourly earnings higher than Whites’, while nine groups of men and seven groups have women have lower earnings. In fact, among Laotians, Hawaiians, and Hmong, even the men earn less than White women. (Note, in my old post, I showed that Asian household incomes are not as high as they look when they are compared instead with those of their local peers, because they are concentrated in expensive metropolitan markets.)

Sometimes when I have a situation like this I just drop the relatively small, complex group, which leads some people to accuse me of trying to skew results. (For example, I might show a chart that has Blacks in the worst position, even though American Indians have it even worse.)

But generalization has consequences, so we should use it judiciously. In most cases “Asian” doesn’t work well. It may make more sense to group people by regions, such as East-, South-, and Southeast Asia, and/or according to immigrant status.

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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.

Cg0IMkjWYAEz-aO

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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Millennial, save thyself

When you see a tweet like this, you have to think, “What could go wrong?”

murray-wilcox-tweet

Ironically, the National Review blog post in question, by Brad Wilcox, was called, “What Could Go Wrong? Millennials are underemployed, unhitched, and unchurched at record rates.” In it he riffs off of the new Pew Research Center report, “Millennials in Adulthood.” His thesis is this:

Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.

Just a couple of completely wrong things about this. Apart from the marriage issue, about which we’ve long since learned Wilcox does not know what he’s talking, look at what he says about work:

 In fact, full-time employment for young men remains at or near record lows. This matters because full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class for ordinary Americans. Work also affords most Americans an important sense of dignity and meaning — the psychological boost provided by what American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks calls a sense of “earned success.”

After that big setup to a link to his boss at AEI, Wilcox shows this figure, the source for which is not revealed, but it’s presumably drawn from the Current Population Survey (though I didn’t realized CPS already goes three clicks beyond 2013):

wilcox-lfp

Anyway, the scary line downward there is for 20-24 year-olds. How awful that they are so disconnected from the labor force these days, not developing their sense of “earned success.” I attempted to recreate that trend here, using the IPUMS extractor:

20-24-lfThat’s some drop in labor force participation since the peak at 77% in 2001, all the way down to 69% in 2013. So, what are they doing instead? Oh, right:

20-24-lf-educThe percentage of 20-24 year-olds attending school increased from 29% in 1990 to 41% in 2013. Altogether, the percentage in either school or the labor force (and some are doing both) has increased slightly. How bad is that? (I suspect this pattern would hold for the other age groups in Wilcox’s figure as well, but the CPS question on school enrollment was only asked of people under age 25. Note also the CPS excludes incarcerated people, which includes a lot of young people.)

So, unless you think education is bad for ties to “core human institutions,” that’s just wrong.

Happy yet?

After marriage, Wilcox moves to civil society, “measured here by religion” (don’t get me started). Obviously, religion is down. And then his conclusion about work, marriage and religion together:

Why does this matter? Historically, these core institutions have furnished meaning, money, and social support to generation after generation of Americans. Even today, data from the 2006–2012 General Social Survey suggest that, taken together, these institutions remain strongly linked to a sense of happiness among today’s Millennials. For instance, 58 percent of Millennial men who were married, employed full-time, and regular religious attendees reported that they are very happy in life; by contrast, only 25 percent of Millennial men who were unmarried, not working full-time, and religiously disengaged reported that they are very happy in life.

What is this, “taken together”? What if I told you that people who millionaires, love hot dogs, and have blue eyes are much richer than people who are not millionaires, hate hot dogs, and have brown eyes? Would that mean that, “taken together,” these factors “remain strongly linked”?

This is easily tested with the publicly available GSS data. I used Pew’s definition of Mellennial (age 18-33 in 2014, so born in the years 1981-1995) and found 676 men in the pooled sample for 2006-2012. There is a strong relationship with “happiness” here, but it is not with all three of these American-dream elements, it’s just with marriage.

I used ordinary least squares regression to predict being “very happy” according to whether the men report attending religious services twice per month or more, being employed full-time, and being married (logistic regression gives the same pattern but is harder to interpret). Then, for the “strongly linked” concept, I created a dummy variable indicating those men who had the Wilcox trifecta — all three good things (there were all of 34 such men in the sample). Wilcox’s claim is that these elements are “strongly linked,” implying all three is greater than the sum of the three separately.

Here are the results:

Predicting “Very Happy” among Mellennial men: General Social Survey

2006-2012 (OLS; N=676)

Entered
separately
Entered
together
Including
trifecta
Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t|
Religious service at 2x+/month .07 .08 .02 .61 .03 .46
Employed full-time .06 .08 .01 .69 .02 .62
Married .29 <.001 .28 <.001 .30 <.001
Wilcox trifecta (all three)  —  — -.07 .48

However you slice it, married men born between 1981 and 1995 are more likely to say they are “very happy” than those who aren’t married. Cheerful bastards. On the other hand, going to church and having a full-time job aren’t significantly associated with very happiness. And the greater-than-the-sum hypothesis fails.

It’s also the case that having a full-time job, being married, and going to church aren’t highly correlated — especially work and church, which aren’t correlated at all (.001). I don’t think you can say these three elements are “strongly linked” to very happiness, or to each other.

Kids these days

But the details don’t matter when the kids-these-days, moral-sky-is-falling story is so firmly dug in. This is his final point:

Perhaps more worrisome, however, is the erosion of trust documented among the Millennial generation in the new Pew report. Only 19 percent of Millennials say that “most people can be trusted” — a response rate that marks them as much less trusting of their fellow citizens than were earlier generations of Americans, as the figure below shows.

But that’s actually not what the figure shows:

Wilcox4-3-10

The Gen X folks in the Pew survey are ages 34-49, the Millennials are 18-33, or 16 years younger. So in fact the figure shows that Millennials are almost exactly where Gen X was when they were 18-33, in the mid-1990s — about 20% trusting. No (recent) generational change.

So, back to the Charles Murray tweet. Isn’t it shocking that when someone agrees with him in the conclusions, he thinks they’re brilliant in the analysis?

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Gender and family time: change and stall visualized

The Pew Research Center put out a report this month titled, “Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as They Balance Work and Family.” It analyzes trends in time use among men and women in families, showing the big changes since the 1960s, and adds Pew’s own survey data on attitudes and perceptions. Lots of interesting information.

But what jumped out at me was that the stall in progress did not feature much in Pew’s narrative, written by Kim Parker and Wendy Wang. I really noticed that when the Joy Cardin show featured the report on Wisconsin Public Radio, and Cardin’s intro was this:

Family gender roles are converging, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. Father’s have more than doubled the time they spend on housework. More moms are paid to work outside the home. (The audio is here.)

Those facts are true, but old news – older than the new news, which is that nothing much has happened since the early 1990s. Here are the trends, in Pew’s nice graphics. See if you can find the stall point in each figure.

pewstall1pewstall2pewstall3pewstall4.5pewstall4pewstall5

The last one, parents’ child care time, is the only one that shows continued real progress, albeit slower, in the last decade.

I favor three explanations for this gender stall:

  • Work-family policy, as described by Stephanie Coontz here.
  • Cultural trends toward “egalitarian essentialism,” which “blends aspects of feminist equality and traditional motherhood roles” (e.g., intensive parenting mania), as described by David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman here.
  • Weaker government enforcement of anti-discrimination law, as described in the new book Documenting Desegregation, by Don Tomaskovic-Devey and Kevin Stainback.

These explanations do not exclude others.

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