Millennials expect fewer kids, much longer work hours

Is America about to experience a baby bust?

Research by organizations such as the Pew Research Center and the Families and Work Institute has suggested that millennials are less likely to have children than previous generations. Now, a study comparing the 1992 and 2012 graduating classes of the Wharton Business School students offers more evidence that millennials believe that having children won't be possible, given the demands of work and social action they expect to shoulder.

The researcher, Wharton professor Stewart D. Friedman, is the author of “The Baby Bust.”

Friedman asked 1992 grads and 2012 grads similar sets of questions designed to elicit their expectations around having a family. What he found was a much lower percent — 42 percent — of millennials said they planned to have children, compared to 78 percent of the Class of 1992.

While planning for this future shortage of workers may be beyond the abilities of most of today’s HR departments, managers will be interested to know why millennial men in particular are pulling back from the traditional family model.

In 1992, the male grads told Friedman they thought they'd be working an average of 58 hours a week. In 2012, the average was 72 hours.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Friedman said he was impressed by the young male’s expectations around work. “These kids are not fearful of the amount of work that’s coming. Or at least they’re realistic about the amount of work that they expect to be doing,” he said. In addition, these young men had a much higher expectation that their spouses would also be fully engaged in a career.

And given these factors, young men in particular see “conflict between their work and potential family roles.”

Another factor the survey identified: “Young men today are more likely to want to be engaged on the domestic front as fathers and as partners, to be more psychologically and physically involved in family life. And so the conflict between their work and potential family roles is much greater as a result. And that’s one of the things that we saw that helps us explain why fewer men are planning to have kids. Because they don’t see how they can do it.”

Millennial women also expressed a far lower expectation to have children than did females in the Class of '92, Friedman said.

But their concern was based more upon their desire to be involved in social actions. Here again, like their male counterparts, they didn’t see how they could manage to properly raise a family while attempting to save the world.

Friedman was careful to note that millennials still expressed a desire to have children. In that regard, they weren’t much different from the Class of ’92. But their intention to actually have children is far lower. Rather, this group was saying, yes, we want to have kids, but we just don't see how we can do it with all these conflicting interests.

“So they still want to have kids. They just don’t see how they can do it. Or other things have become more important,” he said.

Overall, Friedman said, the results should be encouraging.

“There is less of an imperative to have children. So young people are feeling freer to choose not to become parents,” he said. “And we certainly know that not everybody who has become a parent wanted to be a parent or should have become a parent. But in virtually every generation prior to now there was the assumption, and you might think of it as an imperative especially for women, that they were to bear children. Well young women today seem to feel freer to say, I don’t have to do this.”

One caveat Friedman mentioned regarding the survey results: the 2012 class entered school in 2008, as the economy was deteriorating.

“So we caught them at probably the lowest ebb, in terms of their fears about their financial future. So that might be driving it,” he said. 

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