Trends of the Past Four Decades

Loss of Child Centeredness

Figure 8. Fertility Rates of Women Age 15–44, by Year, United States[A]

Figure 8. Fertility Rates of Women Age 15–44, by Year, United States
  1. The total fertility rate is the number of births that an average woman would have if, at each year of age, she experienced the birth rates occurring in the specified year. A total fertility rate of 2.11 represents replacement-level fertility under current mortality conditions (assuming no net migration).

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Vital Statistics Report for 1993, and NVS Report 49. Available online from www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm. “Births: Preliminary Data” for 2007 (in NVS Report 57) (Table 1) and for 2008 (in NVS Report 58) (p. 6). Available online from www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm. U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1999 (pages 75–76,78, Tables 91,93,96). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html.

Figure 9. Percentage of Households with a Child or Children Under Age 18, 1960-2009, United States

Figure 9. Percentage of Households with a Child or Children Under Age 18, 1960-2009, United States

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1964 (Tables 36, 54), for 1980 (Tables 62, 67), for 1985 (Tables 54, 63), for 1994 (Table 67), and for 2004–05 (Table 56). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html; Current Population Reports: “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Tables F1, H1). Available online at www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.

Key Finding: The presence of children in America (as measured by fertility rates and the percentage of households with children) has declined significantly since 1960. Other indicators suggest that this decline has reduced the child centeredness of our nation and contributed to the weakening of the institution of marriage.

Throughout history, marriage has first and foremost been an institution for procreation and raising children. It has provided the cultural tie that seeks to connect the father to his children by binding him to the mother of his children. Yet in recent times, children have increasingly been pushed from center stage.

Gradually declining throughout American history, fertility reached a low point during the Great Depression of the 1930s before suddenly accelerating with the baby-boom generation, starting in 1945. By 1960, the birth rate had returned to where it had been in 1920, with women having on average 3.65 children over the course of their lives (Figure 8). After 1960, the birth rate dropped sharply for two decades, finally leveling off around 1990.

In 2008, the latest year for which we have complete information, the American total fertility rate (TFR) stood at 2.09, slightly above the 1990 level and slightly above two children per woman. This rate is right at the replacement level of 2.1, where the population would be replaced through births alone, and is one of the highest rates found in modern, industrialized societies. In most European and several Asian nations, the TFR has decreased to a level well below that of the United States. In some countries, it is only slightly more than one child per woman.[1 ]The U.S. rate is relatively high due in part to the contribution of our higher-fertility Hispanic population.

The long-term decline of births has had a marked effect on the makeup of the American household. In the mid-1800s, more than 75 percent of all households likely contained children under the age of 18.[2] One hundred years later, in 1960, this number had dropped to slightly less than half of all households. In 2009, just five decades after that, only 33 percent of households included children (Figure 9). Today, adults are less likely to be living with children, neighborhoods are less likely to contain children, and children are less likely to be a consideration in daily life. It suggests that the needs and concerns of children—especially young children—may be gradually receding from our national consciousness.

Several scholars have determined that in 1960, the proportion of one’s life spent living with a spouse and children was 62 percent, the highest in our history. By that year, the death rate had plummeted, so fewer marriages were ending each year through death. And the divorce revolution of recent decades had not yet begun, so a still relatively small number of marriages were ending in divorce. By 1985, 25 years later, the proportion of one’s life spent with a spouse and children dropped to 43 percent—the lowest in history.[3] This remarkable reversal was caused mainly by the decline of fertility and the weakening of marriage through divorce and nonmarital childbearing.

In a cross-national comparison of industrialized nations, the United States ranked virtually at the top in the percentage disagreeing with this statement: “The main purpose of marriage is having children.” [4] Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that the main purpose of marriage is something other than children—compared to, for example, 51 percent of Norwegians and 45 percent of Italians who believe that the main purpose of marriage is something other than children. Consistent with this view is a dramatic change in our attitudes about holding marriages together for the sake of children. In a Detroit area sample of women, the proportion of women answering “no” to the question, “Should a couple stay together for the sake of the children?” jumped from 51 percent to 82 percent between 1962 and 1985.[5] A nationally representative 1994 sample found only 15 percent of the population agreeing that “When there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don’t get along.” [6]

One effect of the weakening of child centeredness is clear. A careful analysis of divorce statistics shows that, beginning around 1975, the presence of children in a marriage has become only a very minor inhibitor of divorce (slightly more so when the child is male than female).[7]


  1. The TFR in Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Japan is 1.3; and in South Korea, it is 1.1. “World Population Data Sheet” (Washington DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2006).
  2. See James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1990), Figure 22.4: 588.
  3. See Susan Cotts Watkins, Jane A. Menken, and John Bongaarts, “Demographic Foundations of Family Change,” American Sociological Review 52 (1987): 346–58.
  4. See Tom W. Smith, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, “The Emerging 21st Century American Family,” GSS Social Change Report 42 (1999), Table 20: 48.
  5. See Arland Thornton, “Changing Attitudes Toward Family Issues in the United States,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1989): 873–93. This change occurred among women as they grew older, but it is very unlikely to be just an age effect.
  6. Source: The General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.
  7. See Tim B. Heaton, “Marital Stability Throughout the Child-Rearing Years,” Demography 27 (1990): 55–63; Philip Morgan, Diane Lye, and Gretchen Condran, “Sons, Daughters, and the Risk of Marital Disruption,” American Journal of Sociology 94 (1988): 110–29; Linda Waite and Lee A. Lillard, “Children and Marital Disruption,” American Journal of Sociology 96 (1991): 930–53.