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Should you expect more maternity leaves, or fewer?

May 14, 2015

By Joe DeSantis, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

It is well established that the Great Recession had a negative effect on the U.S. birth rate. New numbers now seem to suggest that even though the recession ended in 2010, the birth rate was still going down through 2013, albeit less rapidly. That fact has confounded demographers who know that recessions, with their high unemployment, have historically depressed birth rates, and recoveries have reinvigorated them.

There are no numbers yet for 2014, but since we experienced such broad-based job growth in 2014 and into 2015, the question is whether or not potential moms are still putting maternity off or not. For HR departments, the question becomes whether they should expect to see more, or fewer, maternity or paternity leaves in the years ahead.

It is a demographic jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing, but here are some of the things we know:

  • According to the Urban Institute, birth rates for women in their 20s dropped more than 15% between 2007 and 2012, which covers the period of the Great Recession plus two years.
  • Through 2013, birth rates have continued to drop, although at a slower rate. According to Center for Disease Control (CDC), for all women of child-bearing age (15 to 44) the birth rate in 2012 was 63 births per 1,000 women; in 2013 it went down to 62.5 per 1,000 women.
  • The birth rate for married women has actually gone up since the end of the recession—by 3% since 2010, including 1% from 2012 to 2013. The problem there is that marriage rates themselves are declining. According to the Pew Center, in 2012 25% of U.S. adults age 25 or older had never been married. In 1960 it was 10%. What’s more, fewer unmarried people want to get married. A year ago, 53% of all never-married people said they wanted to get married; in 2010 61% said they wanted to get married.

In addition, there are those who believe that younger people today who put off having children during the Great Recession due to economic uncertainty will decide, or have already decided, not to have children at all. Two researchers at Princeton University, Jannet Currie and Hannes Schwandt, make the statistical case. They studied the birth records of American women between 1975 and 2010, a 35-year period that included five different recessions. They found that each one-percentage point increase in the unemployment rate of women age 20-24 in a particular state correlated with a reduction in conceptions of 6 per 1,000 women. When those same women reached age 40, each one-percentage point increase correlated to 14.2 fewer conceptions per 1,000 women. Applying those numbers to the Great Recession, they project that 151,000 additional women in that state will end up not having a child by age 40. “The negative effects on fertility grow over time,” they said.

The Princeton study was limited in the sense that it did not consider other factors that impact fertility rates, such as immigration. Immigration went down during the Great Recession, and immigrants tend to have higher fertility rates than non-immigrants. And recessions mean that fewer employed single men are available for marriage. Pew’s 2014 survey revealed that 80% of unmarried women said it was very important to them for a potential marriage partner to be employed. Since married women are the ones who are having more babies, fewer married women means fewer babies.

Nevertheless, another study of millennial behavior in the workplace argues that millennial employees (those 18 to 32 years old) are twice as likely (26%) as Gen Xers (13%) to increase the amount of time they work after having children. Note that the age parameters the study used to define millennials include people old enough to presumably find themselves in managerial or other leadership positions. That study, by EY (the global parent of Ernst & Young LLP) concludes that Millennials see fewer barriers to balancing the demands of career with those of parenting. Which in turn could mean a greater willingness by Millenials to have more babies now that the economy is on the upswing.

The question for HR departments of whether to expect more requests for maternity leave in the next several years is so far defying a clear answer. But the next set of numbers (for 2014) could either provide that answer to keep it in the realm of mystery. Demographers are looking forward to them, and HR departments should do the same.

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