As millennials begin to turn 40 in 2021, CNBC Make It has launched Middle-Aged Millennials, a series exploring how the oldest members of this generation have grown into adulthood amid the backdrop of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, student loans, stagnant wages and rising costs of living.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made the outlook for older millennials looking to start or expand their families even more uncertain.
About a quarter of older millennials say they decided to wait longer to have children because of the pandemic, according to a recent conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CNBC Make It. The survey was made up of 1,000 U.S. adults ages 33 to 40.
Some are avoiding having children altogether. About 19% of older millennials say they have decided not to have a child or additional children at this time because of the pandemic, according to the Harris survey. Among those who find they want children less following the pandemic, the most common reason is that they don't want to bring a child into the world right now, followed by uncertainty about the economy.
But many in this cohort of millennials already waited until their 30s to seriously start thinking about having children thanks in part to student loan debt and the Great Recession's impact on the job market. Now, the pandemic is making it even more difficult for older millennials to start or grow their families.
In many cases, that's because the global health and economic crisis has led to limited access to health care, raised concern about the risks of pregnancy, increased stress and created mental and emotional barriers that have made starting families difficult.
For millennials who are already between the ages of 33 and 40, that additional waiting could lead to more challenges to plans to start or expand their families. The older women get, the harder it is to conceive and carry to term without medical intervention, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. For women having kids in their 30s, that means it can take longer to conceive or involve more risks.
By 40, the age the oldest millennials turn this year, women have less than a 5% chance of getting pregnant each month. Even at age 35, most women have just a 15% to 20% chance of getting pregnant each month. The lower likelihood of getting pregnant could lead some older millennials to spend more on fertility treatments and even adoptions and surrogacy if traditional methods fail.
While it's too early to tell what impact the pandemic will have on birth rates specifically among older millennials, data indicates that Americans typically have fewer children during and immediately after economic downturns, says Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College who has studied birth rates.
Older millennials, for instance, were in their early and mid 20s — the peak childbearing years — when the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession hit. Prior to that economic crisis, older millennials were having kids at roughly the same rate as previous generations. But Levine says that number fell dramatically afterward. "The Great Recession really hit them at an inopportune moment in their lives," he says.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic is spurring a "baby bust" for American families, with Brookings Institute researchers estimating the number of births in the U.S. will fall by at least 300,000 this year.
"Many people's initial instinct was to think that we were going to end up with more babies because there's nothing else to do. It turns out that having children is a little bit more complicated than that," says Levine, who co-authored the Brookings report.
But Levine says older millennials have been hit with a "double whammy" since they experienced two economic crises during their childbearing years. That means it's more than likely this cohort won't have as many children as previous generations, he adds.
For Miriam Ali, a 36-year-old California-based attorney specializing in estate planning, the pandemic strengthened her decision not to have children. Although Ali and her husband have been together for 17 years, they initially put off starting a family in part because of their financial struggles.
"When I graduated in 2009, that was during all of the madness of the Great Recession," Ali says. It made good legal jobs difficult to come by and forced her to bounce around for a few years. "It wasn't great money," she says.
Her husband struggled as well, particularly during the 2007 Hollywood writers' strike, which greatly impacted his early career as an editor and digital media manager in the entertainment industry.
"We really were at sea for a while," making it a bad time financially to have kids, Ali says. When things started to turn around, Ali adds the desire just wasn't there. "The door was closed. It was shut. It was locked. And then the pandemic definitely put the bolt in place."
The pandemic may mark the end for some older millennials' desire to have children. But it could also mean that those who waited and still want kids will spend more on infertility treatments, adoption, surrogacy and even medical bills for higher-risk pregnancies.
The average cost of a healthy, full-term baby born without complications is about $5,085 over the course of their first year, according to an analysis by Truven Health Analytics. But the average cost for a premature baby is $55,393.
Many of the extra costs older millennials face may not be covered by insurance. Only about 17% of employers offer financial assistance toward adoptions, which can cost between $15,000 and $40,000. Surrogacy costs can easily run in the six figures.
Only about 24% of employers offer benefits that include coverage for in vitro fertilization, according to the nonprofit International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. On a regulatory front, only 13 states require insurance companies cover the costs of this process.
The price alone of IVF could put children out of reach for some couples. The cost of IVF averages around $23,000 per cycle, and many women need multiple cycles to have a successful pregnancy. Only about 12% of women ages 15 to 49 nationwide have used an infertility service, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In many cases, the high cost is to blame for this, Levine says.
Annabel Adams, a 37-year-old marketing and communications professional for UC Irvine, and her husband, Brian, have already spent nearly $32,000 on out-of-pocket IVF costs. Because Adams' employer doesn't cover IVF, she switched to her husband's insurance after her first round failed because his company provided up to $15,000 in lifetime fertility costs.
The couple started trying for kids two years ago after waiting to pay off their student loans, secure stable jobs and save for a house. "I wouldn't say we put off having children, but we were very intentional about trying to have children when we felt that the situation we could provide to a child would enable them to thrive," Adams says.
Adams got pregnant right away, but miscarried at 12 weeks. Then it kept happening. Adams has lost five pregnancies over two years. Doctors discovered she has a rare genetic issue that caused the miscarriages. While there is still a chance that Adams could have a healthy baby naturally, it's much more difficult. At this point, Adams says doctors told her that IVF was the best route.
"You would think that $15,000 coverage would be enough, right? Wrong," Adams says, adding that the bills are still coming in. "We depleted one retirement IRA to help pay for a house and now we've depleted a second to go toward the baby."
While there's no guarantee the couple will be able to have a child even with IVF, Adams says she will be able to move on if it doesn't work. "I don't want my life to just be despair after despair," she says. "One of the ways we've adapted is by not hinging our happiness on things that are outside of our control."
CNBC Make It will be publishing more stories in the Middle-Aged Millennials series around student loans, employment, wealth, diversity and health. If you're an older millennial (ages 33 to 40), share your story with us for a chance to be featured in a future installment.