The early years of adulthood are supposed to be a time of optimism and hope, but for many Americans now in their 20s it has instead been a period of uncertainty and frustration.
Hobbled by student loan debt, frustrated by careers that have been stymied by a weak job market and frightened by watching their own parents suffer setbacks, many say they feel they are getting off to a slow start. Even as the economy improves, some wonder if they'll ever feel comfortable enough financially to have kids of their own.
"The American Dream is … OK, we go to school, we graduate, we get good jobs, we buy a house, we have kids," said Daniel Flores, 27. "And it's just like none of that has happened."
Flores and his wife, Karlee, grew up in religious homes, got married soon after graduating from college and assumed that they would also be young parents.
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Instead, the Salem, Ore., couple question if parenthood is in the cards for them at all.
"We don't see it penciling out," Karlee, also 27, wrote in an e-mail to TODAY.
The U.S. birth rate has generally fallen since the Great Recession began in 2007, and some of the sharpest drops have been among women in their 20s. In 2011, the birth rate for those 20 to 24 hit a record low of 85.3 births per 1,000 women, according to the most recent detailed data available from the Centers for Disease Control. For the 25-to-29 group, the birth rate of 107.2 births per 1,000 women was the lowest since 1976.
The drop comes amid a longer-term trend toward women having children later in life. The average age for a woman giving birth to her first child was 25.6 in 2011, up from 21.4 in 1970, according to the CDC.
The decline also has coincided with an excruciatingly long period of high unemployment and weak economic growth.
Economists say the slump has meant that some people in their 20s are getting a slower start on landing a career-track job, or a job at all. That can have a lifelong impact on earnings and also can mean that it takes longer to feel financially prepared for other big steps, such as buying a house, getting married and having children.
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"Some of this postponement is for a good reason, which is that younger adults are more likely to be well-educated, and as a college graduate you're going to get into the labor market and start earning money later," said D'Vera Cohn, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center. "But certainly there are some trends that are worrisome and could signal that their wealth over their lifetime could be affected."
It's not uncommon for women to put off having children during a recession, and experts say that women have usually compensated for the decline when the economy improved.
"The only time that, historically in the United States, we've seen that the economy actually reduced childbearing in a way that catch-up didn't occur was in the Great Depression," said Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate with the Guttmacher Institute. "And even then, you had the baby boom following it."
Daniel Schneider, a health-policy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said his data have shown that much of the recent drop in birth rates has been among younger women who haven't had their first child. Past research has shown that women who delay their first birth, as opposed to later births, tend to end up having as many kids as they might have otherwise.
But, he said, there's no guarantee that will happen this time. Many people appear to have deferred having kids not because they lost their job or had some other setback, but because they're afraid they could be next to get a pink slip or eviction notice.
"There's no way that the whole birth dearth has been driven by only the foreclosed, or only the unemployed," Schneider said.
It's not clear when those would-be parents will start to feel secure enough to make the economic commitment of having a family.
'You don't understand my financial situation'
Karlee and Daniel Flores say they are asked often when they are going to have kids. When they answer that they don't feel financially ready, Daniel said they frequently hear the old adage: If you wait until you're ready, you'll never have them.
Daniel said he's often tempted to reply, "I understand that, but you don't know my financial situation."
Daniel makes about $17 an hour as a case manager for the Oregon division of child support, while Karlee makes about $13 an hour as a business manager for a carpet company.
Though they are both grateful for their jobs, Daniel said he wants to find a career-track position that would let him earn enough so that Karlee could stay home with their children.
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The two also have about $60,000 in combined student loan debt, and their monthly payments on that are one reason they live paycheck to paycheck. On their current salaries, they can't imagine adding hundreds of dollars a month in child care expenses.
In the past, Lindberg said, many couples like the Floreses could count on a grandparent to help out with child rearing. But many grandparents now live far away—or are still working themselves.
Karlee and Daniel say their parents are eager to become grandparents but have suffered job losses of their own as a result of the recession. That means they probably will be working for years to come.
Sometimes, the couple look at friends who have had kids and wonder if they are being overly cautious. As Christians, they say they feel a lot of pressure to start a family, but they also find peace in the idea that God has a plan for them.
"Our happiness doesn't solely rely on whether we're going to have kids or not have kids," Daniel said.