The Baby Bottleneck

This morning I received the following email from my friend Leontine:

Several times now, when I’ve told someone that I’m pregnant, they’ve looked surprised and said, "wow, a lot of people are pregnant now, aren’t they?" Is this true? If not, why do people think that it is? Even if it’s not a general trend, are a particularly large number of 30-something women who work in Manhattan pregnant right now? Discuss.

Who could resist? It turns out that there is indeed a little baby boom underway right now. In 2003, the latest data available, there were just over 4 million births reported, an increase of 2% over 2002, and the highest number since 1963, according to this report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

So who’s popping out the tots?

First, let’s look at who’s not: teenagers. The teenage birth rate is at a record low –it’s fallen by one-third since 1991. It’s fallen even faster for black teen girls. In fact, even though we have more teenagers today, the absolute number of babies born to women under 20 is at its lowest point since 1946.

It’s not just teens who aren’t getting pregnant,it’s also women in their early twenties. The birth rate among women age 20-24 is at its lowest recorded rate ever.

It’s women in their 30s that are picking up the slack: the birth rate for women aged 30 to 39 is at its highest recorded rate since the mid 1960s. (Women in their early 40s are also more often moms–the birth rate to women aged 40 to 44 hasn’t been higher since 1969–but this trend is very often overplayed in the media. Women in their 40s account for a very small share of overall births each year.)

If you take all of this into account, I think that when people say they’ve noticed that lot of people are pregnant now, they’re probably not picking up on the 2% increase in the overall birthrate –that’s fairly small, after all, and spread out across the entire country. I think it’s more likely that they know a lot of women in their 30s.

Because really, what we’re seeing here is a contraction –of the band of time that women first become mothers. This time band is narrower now than in it’s been in recent decades, since women are not only having their babies at an older age, they’re also not having them when they’re younger. This creates a "baby bottleneck" for women in their 30s.

You can see this baby bottleneck in the "first births" data: the rate of women having a first baby in their teens has declined, the rate of women having a first baby in their 30s has increased, and it’s remained unchanged for women for women age 20-24, and over 40.

So why has this baby bottleneck become more pronounced in recent years? It’s an open–and interesting–question.


3 thoughts on “The Baby Bottleneck

  1. I knew something was going on. I think that the people who said this to me were also seeing a lot of pregnant people around. In Manhattan. Which is a place that probably has a lot more 30-somethings and a lot fewer teenagers and 20-somethings compared to other places. So that makes sense, right? Wow, demographics is interesting.

    Do you think that the trend towards having kids later reflects the fact that a lot of people still consider themselves to be kids until they are 30 or so?

  2. It might well be that people think they’re kids until they’re 30. Or maybe, this is how Gen X women are brokering the baby/career conflict –previous generations either had the baby early or late, our generation may be working a little, taking time out for baby, and then getting back into the workplace. I’m not sure…it’s puzzling. I also don’t understand why it is that 30-something women are having more babies -women in their thirties are Baby Busters, by rights, there should be fewer babies right now, not more, because there are relatively fewer women in their 30s today than a few years ago…but women in their thirties are having enough babies to overcome their smaller numbers in the population. I don’t get it. Not to mention, common wisdom said that this generation of latch-key-broken-home-whatever-slackers wouldn’t embrace motherhood. I never put much stock in that wisdom, but I’m still puzzled by the data. I’m thinking about it, but I don’t get it.

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