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TUESDAY, Sept. 30, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- When unemployment rates climb, women tend to put the brakes on motherhood. And for many young women, that decision may turn out to be a permanent choice, new research suggests.
Women in their early 20s appear most likely to choose not to have a child during tough economic times. But, according to the new study, that means many of those women will remain childless into their 40s and beyond.
The findings suggest that higher unemployment "will increase the numbers of unmarried, childless women," said study author Janet Currie, chair of Princeton University's department of economics and director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing.
"Perhaps the women will go on to have careers that they would not have had," said Currie, suggesting that these careers could interfere with plans to have children later in life.
"In the past, though, elderly unmarried women were more likely to be poor, and these women will not have children to depend on," she said.
Previous research has suggested that hard economic times may be linked to falling fertility rates. "The mystery is whether women make up for this by having more children later on," Currie said. So she and colleague Hannes Schwandt, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton, decided to find out.
They examined the records of more than 140 million births in the United States from 1975 to 2010. Then they tried to find connections between birth rates, women of various childbearing ages and the unemployment rate.
"We find that women who were in their early 20s -- 20 to 24 -- during recessions reduced their fertility the most, and the effects were even greater in the long run," Currie said. "They were less likely to ever have married or to have had any children by age 40."
In the big picture, a recession is likely to be short and not have a huge impact on the country's birth rate, Currie said. Still, she added, the "Great Recession" of 2008-2009 will likely lower the number of births over the long term.
"The estimates imply that of the women aged 20 to 24 at the start of the Great Recession, an additional 151,082 will remain childless at age 40," the study authors wrote. That would represent an 8.9 percent increase in the number of women who remain childless for life, the researchers explained.
Two experts offered some theories on the study's findings.
"People may continue their education, for example, or take jobs that are not especially compatible with family life," said Andrew Foster, director of Brown University's Population Studies and Training Center.
"Or they may simply alter their expectations of what it means to be a family," Foster said. "These changes are not all good or all bad. But they do reflect a kind of response to the reduced opportunities that individuals face when they enter the labor market in a period of economic uncertainty."
Elizabeth Ananat, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, said, "People often assume that boom and bust times cancel each other out. But this study reinforces earlier findings that the harm from recessions doesn't go away later, particularly for people who are in their early 20s and entering the job market for the first time when a recession hits."
The study was published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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SOURCES: Janet Currie, Ph.D., chair, department of economics, and director, Center for Health and Wellbeing, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.; Andrew Foster, director, Population Studies & Training Center, Brown University, Providence, R.I.; Elizabeth Ananat, Ph.D., assistant professor, public policy and economics, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 2014, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online