According to a new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 43 percent of Gen X women and 32 percent of Gen X men do not have any children. According to the study, Gen Xers, those born between 1965 and 1978 (currently 33 to 46 years old) should be at the stage of their lives where they are “stepping into crucial leadership roles and starting families.” Instead, ambitious Gen Xers feel stalled in their careers and are working 60+ hour weeks trying desperately to keep their debt levels under control. The combination of huge student debts (Gen X is the most educated generation and is now paying for it) with the current financial turmoil and lack of advancement opportunities (those boomers aren’t retiring quickly enough!) leave little extra cash to pay for diapers and day care.
Opting Out or Feeling Forced Out of Parenting?
In a Washington Post article, Petula Dvorak writes:
I see them downtown, these women my age who have no haunted look of sleeplessness in their eyes. They don’t have suspicious stains on their clothes. They aren’t picking smashed Cheerio bits out from between their BlackBerry keys. (We working moms live in a world of perpetual BlackBerry outages, constantly explaining the latest apple-juice incident to the IT dude.) My first thought when I see these women in their 30s and 40s is, “Right on, sister.”
Nearly half the women who make up Generation X — 43 percent — have no children.
Attribute it to more opportunities in the workforce, relaxing social pressure, advances in contraception or watching women such as myself slip into an increasingly disheveled state of hysteria for years after childbirth and vowing not to follow suit.
She then goes on to talk about the issues of debt, ambition, stalled careers and long hours that were mentioned in the study and ultimately concludes that this isn’t just some contemporary trend toward being child free. Rather, despite the supposed choices that women of our generation have, as significant contributors to the family income (91% of Gen X women are part of a dual-earning couple and one third of them out-earn their spouses), many Gen Xers may feel there is simply not enough financial wiggle room to have children.
Where Are Our Choices?
If these women truly do not want to have children, then there is no problem. The earth is already overpopulated and the decision to be child free is one that people should be able to make freely. However, if the women and men of Gen X do want to have children and feel like they cannot, then there is a problem.
That problem is a multifaceted one. On the one-hand, at a macro-level there is insufficient support for parenting in the United States. The key supports that are needed to allow one parent or the other to take some time off to have and raise children are missing. Those supports include maternity and parental leave, decent affordable health care options and subsidized day care.
On the other hand, society also needs to be more accepting of men as parents. This shouldn’t simply be about women choosing not to have babies. Feminists have been pushing for more options for women, but if we want a family friendly future we need to push for more:
We need to push for a society that values family and parenthood. One that recognizes that role that parents play in raising the next generation. One that recognizes that fathers, like mothers, may need to strike a balance between their career and their family life. One where women don’t feel that they have to be an equally uninvolved parent in order to reach their goals, but where they can ask their partner to step up too.
Women also need to be willing to let go, work with their partners and accept that they cannot do it all. Parenting while having a career is challenging, requires sacrifices and necessitates an acceptance of less than perfect.
Support is Key
Parenting is hard and people need to feel supported in their choice to become a parent. That is true in the best of times, but is even more true in difficult economic times where families are having trouble making ends meet and where fear of job loss has people putting in longer hours for less money. When societal support for parenting does not exist, it is no wonder that more people are opting out.
Image credit: eflon on flickr