"We were just trying to measure how much catch-up there was," Currie said in a telephone interview. When the research showed a shortfall for women who experience those tough times at ages 20 to 24, "we were surprised."
Currie said many women at that age are at a crossroads in deciding whether to get married and have children. Poor economic times may discourage many women from doing so, and once the economy improves and the women have gotten older, they may be less likely to go ahead, she speculated.
Other studies show that men who take a first job during a recession often get locked into lower earnings for the rest of their lives, so maybe those potential mates become less attractive to women, Currie said.
No long-term effect on childbearing appeared for women of other ages.
Dan Black, an economic demographer at the University of Chicago who had no role in the new study, said the finding of an effect on childlessness makes sense to him.
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If a recession derails a woman's plans to have children in her early 20s, the prospect may become less appealing later because of things like career considerations or a breakup with her romantic partner, he said.
"Things happen in life. Life can evolve in very complicated ways," he said.
John Casterline, an Ohio State University professor who studies childbearing patterns, said the long-term effect of the Great Recession on births is small but still remarkable.
"The train leaves the station. If you're not on it, you've missed your chance," he said. "This is a pretty amazing result."
—By The Associated Press