THE BLOG
10/22/2013 08:55 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

7 Policy Changes We Can Make to Reverse the Baby Bust

In time for National Work and Family Month, I just published a study that compares the Wharton School's Classes of 1992 and 2012 which shows that the rate of college graduates who plan to have children has dropped by about half over the past 20 years. In 1992, 78 percent said that they planned to have children. In 2012, 42 percent did. And these percentages were nearly the same for men and women. Millennial men and women are equally opting out of parenthood.

We are in the midst of a revolution in gender roles, both at work and at home. As I document in the book -- Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family -- the outlook is very different for those embarking on adulthood's journey now than it was for the men and women who graduated a generation ago. What do the radical shifts in young people's values and aspirations say about what we need to do to ensure a bright future for them and for subsequent generations?

We need to continue replacing the human population, and children still need caretakers to lovingly support and educate them. And for those people who do want to become parents- -not all do -- it behooves us to make it easy enough for them to foresee how they can realize this wish.

Our current capacity to meet this challenge is cause for serious concern. But there is no one solution; partial answers must come from various quarters. Here are seven ideas for action in social and educational policy, based on the Baby Bust research and what others have learned.

Provide World-Class Child Care

Children require care, yet the U.S. ranks among the lowest in the developed world in the quality of the early childhood care we provide. Just as bad, the K-12 education we offer falls far short of our aspirations and of global norms. A massive overhaul could start with labor market compensation practices, which are now based on the principle that the younger the people a worker serves, the lower his or her pay. A smarter approach would be to reduce this ratio, with all the training and licensing requirements that would be needed to justify much higher rates of pay for those who care for our youngest citizens. High-quality childcare not only helps children but enables their parents - mothers and fathers -- to engage fully in the workforce without unnecessary distraction and worry.

Make Family Leave Universally Available

Family leave, including paternity leave, is essential for giving parents the support they need to care for their children. Right now, only 11 percent of U.S. employees receive paid family leave from employers. The one public policy that covers time off to care for new children, the Family and Medical Leave Act, laudable though it is, still excludes 40 percent of the workforce. And millions who are eligible and need leave don't take it, mainly because it's unpaid, but also because of the stigma and real-world negative consequences. We need to expand who's eligible for FMLA and make it affordable; the more people who use it, the less there will be stigma, and a virtuous circle will be created to replace the vicious cycle we have now, wherein parents opt out of work and young workers opt out of parenting.

Revise the Education Calendar

The standard school day is based on an outdated schedule. Other countries have children in schools for longer days and for a greater part of the calendar year, providing support for working parents and enrichment for children.

Support Portable Health Care

Given the increasing rates of mobility in labor markets and the rising costs of health care, working parents benefit greatly from health care policies that don't punish them for taking time off or moving. The Affordable Care Act is a step in this direction. It helps families obtain care while avoiding crippling debt as both parents might now have to navigate careers in which they move from job to job. And preventive care reduces the need for time off due to health problems that afflict workers and their children.

Relieve Students of Burdensome Debt

Skyrocketing interest rates on student loans and the increasing cost of higher education result in debt burdens that are too onerous. Our findings indicated that too many young people simply can't envision a future in which they can afford to support children.

Require Public Service

We found that young people today, especially women, want to do work that helps others, despite their expectation that they will not be well compensated for it. But how do we as a society channel that enthusiasm and idealism? We could require a year of public service for post-secondary school youth, which would improve our workforce and help all of us calibrate what's really important.

Display a Variety of Role Models and Paths

In our sample, we found that career paths have narrowed because students believe that they must earn money quickly and that only a few options offer this. The more that young boys and girls hear stories about the wide range of noble, and economically viable, roles they can play in society, the easier it will be for them to choose the roles that match their talents and interests. Young adults would benefit from exploring as wide an array of career alternatives as possible.

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As a commonwealth, we need to focus on what children in our society require -- nurturing. How can they get it if the norm now is that both parents work and that we, unlike other developed countries and even many in the developing world, do not provide social and educational supports for families?

In Baby Bust I offer more ideas for what we can and must do -- in our organizations, in our families, and for ourselves -- to ensure that men and women have the freedom to choose to lead the lives they want while rearing the next generation.