Many millennials will tell you that when it comes to family size, smaller is generally preferable – if they even decide to have children, that is. A Pew Research poll from just two years ago found that 44% of adults from 18 to 49 said they were not terribly likely to have children – a 7% increase from the same poll conducted just three years before that, in 2018. But it wasn’t always this way.
In the 1930s, a Gallup poll found that 64% of Americans considered the ideal family size to have at least three children. This figure increased to 77% in a 1945 Gallup poll, right as World War II was coming to a close. After the end of the war, there was a sharp increase in the United States birth rate, so much so that babies born during the birth rate explosion from 1946 to 1964 were dubbed part of the “baby boomer” generation.
Then, in the latter half of the 1960s, birth rates suddenly began to decline. From 1967 to 1971, Gallup found that the percentage of Americans with a preference for a larger family (three or more children) dropped from 70% all the way down to 52%. By 1980, the average number of children per household was 1.8. This trend has continued for decades, with birth rates in the United States declining nearly every year since 1990. And thus, the younger generation’s idea of a “normal” family consisting of two parents and two children was solidified.
However, a new poll from Gallup suggests that this might be changing, after finding that 45% of adults in the United States said that three or more children would be ideal – the highest figure since 1971. But before we explore this new development further, let’s first dive into why we found ourselves with a decades-long decline in birth rates to begin with.
Why the Decline in Births?
We know that birth rates have been going down and that families with three or more children are far less common than they were one hundred years ago, but why has this been happening? Why have people been having fewer and fewer children since the 1960s?
It’s been suggested that the initial decrease of babies being born in the United States during the ‘60s and ‘70s could be due to Americans’ growing worry about overpopulation, the cultural shifts that caused premarital sex to be far more commonplace, the rise of birth control that allowed women to delay and/or avoid having children, the dramatic increase of women joining the workforce during these decades, various economic concerns, and the fact that Americans are waiting longer than ever to tie the knot.
These all certainly sound like ingredients that make for fewer babies and smaller families, but is that all that’s at play here, or is there something else contributing to this trend?
Families and Motherhood Have Been Devalued for Decades
There’s no doubt that later marriages and greater access to birth control, for example, have had a heavy influence on how many people were having children (and how many children they were having too). But the mere existence of birth control doesn’t keep people who desire children from having them, and neither does delaying getting married until 27, the average age for American women today to say “I do.” If Americans truly wanted more children, they’d keep having them. So what else could possibly be causing this decades-long decrease in birth rates?
Put simply, the nuclear family, a household in which both the mother and father are present and raising children together, began to lose its value in the eyes of Americans during the second half of the 20th century – so much so that, today, there are just over half as many “nuclear families” as there were in 1970. In times past, the nuclear family was the norm; this simply isn’t the case today.
Motherhood became treated as less of a blessing for women and more of a curse that kept them from exercising personal freedom.
Along with the devaluing of the nuclear family came the trivializing of motherhood, a byproduct of the shifting cultural tides throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. Motherhood became treated as less of a blessing for women and more of a curse that kept them from exercising personal freedom. “This dwindling interest in having children is the consequence of three generations of confusing commercial and feminist messaging insisting that one’s career is more important than family,” says psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert, and author Erica Komisar. “Somehow, we have managed to convince a generation that working 9 to 5 for a corporation is more noble than sustaining and nurturing human life.”
Whereas in the 1950s, just 16% of mothers had jobs outside the home, today that figure has risen to nearly 70%. Alongside the rise in mothers with responsibilities aside from caring for children came a decline in seeing motherhood as a source of purpose and meaning. Instead, many women now viewed motherhood as a distraction from their real purpose.
This is hardly to say that women shouldn’t pursue careers or have aspirations that include more than motherhood. But, rather than women feeling greater freedom to pursue passions and careers while also raising a family, this kind of messaging caused women to see having children as a waste of their potential or a loss of their identity. And it’s safe to say that it also contributed to the lower birth rates that the United States saw in the following decades.
Fewer women wanting to have children and fewer people seeing having a family as particularly positive or meaningful created less motivation in Americans to start families.
Is the Family Unit Making a Comeback?
This is what makes Gallup’s recent poll findings that 45% of American adults think three or more children would be ideal so intriguing, and perhaps indicative of the new, albeit slow, reemergence of the larger family unit. And while U.S. birth rates still remain relatively low when compared to those of the early 20th century, the poll surmises that this could be attributed to Americans’ ideal not yet matching up with the reality of their circumstances: “U.S. adults’ views of the best family size have not always tracked with birth rates in the U.S., particularly in recent years…while they may see larger families as ideal, other factors are preventing them from implementing this in their own lives.” So maybe we should just give it some time for millennials and Gen Z to make their dreams into a reality?
The Benefits of the Family (and Larger Families Too)
Despite attempts to belittle the significance of the family unit, the fact of the matter is that humans will never outgrow their basic need for family. Every family will look a little bit different from the last, but what they have in common is that individuals with a familial support system are set up to lead far healthier lives. A 2014 study found that children raised with two parents in the house were shown to have greater emotional, physical, and even academic well-being than children who did not have that kind of stability and support growing up.
And when it comes to larger families specifically, while there are certainly some drawbacks and compromises (bigger bills, as well as more physical and emotional energy being expended by the parents, for example), there’s no doubt that having more than just one or two children comes with unique advantages that shouldn’t be quickly dismissed.
Growing up with a few siblings quickly instills in kids an understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around them and that patience is a virtue.
Growing up with a few siblings teaches children how get along with, value, and communicate with various personality types, a slew of necessary skills that will come in handy during adulthood. It also quickly instills in kids an understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around them and that patience is a virtue: “Mommy is helping your sister right now. You’ll have to wait.” Not to mention, various household chores can be assigned as the kids get older, making for a more manageable home.
But big families aren’t only good for teaching children lessons. They also offer a deep sense of community and belonging – that will only expand as siblings get married and begin their own families – which can’t be overvalued in a culture where loneliness is on the rise.
Lastly, a study from Edith Cowan University, conducted through interviews with hundreds of families over a five-year period, concluded that families “with four or more children were the most satisfied with their lot, enjoying, rather than feeling overwhelmed by, the chaos of a big family.”
Maybe it’s too early to tell, but there’s a strong possibility that the family unit, as well as large families, are making a comeback after decades of dwindling in the United States. Only time (or a new Gallup poll) will tell, but for now, we’ll take this most recent poll as a win for the family.
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