Journal Article

Preferences, partners, and parenthood: linking early fertility desires, marriage timing, and achieved fertility

Nitsche, N., Hayford, S.
Demography, 57:6, 1975–2001 (2020)
Open Access


In the United States, underachieving fertility desires is more common among women with higher levels of education and those who delay first marriage beyond their mid-20s. However, the relationship between these patterns, and particularly the degree to which marriage postponement explains lower fertility among the highly educated, is not well understood. We use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort to analyze differences in parenthood and achieved parity for men and women, focusing on the role of marriage timing in achieving fertility goals over the life course. We expand on previous research by distinguishing between entry into parenthood and average parity among parents as pathways to underachieving, by considering variation in the impact of marriage timing by education and by stage of the life course, and by comparing results for men and women. We find that women with a bachelor’s degree who desired three or more children are less likely to become mothers relative to women with the same desired family size who did not attend college. Conditional on becoming mothers, however, women with at least a bachelor’s degree do not have lower completed family size. No comparable fatherhood difference by desired family size is present. Postponing marriage beyond age 30 is associated with lower proportions of parenthood but not with lower parity among parents. Age patterns are similar for women and men, pointing at social rather than biological factors driving the underachievement of fertility goals.

Keywords: USA, desired family size, education, fertility, marriage
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.