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Early Remote Work Impacts on Family Formation

by Lyman Stone and Adam Ozimek

Key Findings:

  • In absence of time-consuming commutes, remote workers—particularly those living with children—are spending more time on childcare and housework. This increased flexibility and time helped boost birth rates over the pandemic, specifically for wealthier or more educated women.
  • Unmarried remote workers are significantly more likely to marry in the next year than their non-remote counterparts, potentially driven by higher migration rates.
  • Though remote work only has a mild positive effect on the likelihood of near-term pregnancy, its effects on fertility intentions are particularly pronounced for women over age 35 (and especially over age 39).
  • For women whose household finances have significantly improved in the past year, the likelihood to report being pregnant or trying to be so if they are remote is more than 10 percentage points higher than that of non-remote workers. 
  • Remote work has the biggest effects on fertility for women who already have several children, and no effect on the fertility intentions of women who have no or one child.

The rapid rise of remote work over the last two years has rippled through society and the economy in a variety of ways. Amid many other negative social disruptions from the pandemic, there has been one positive change: remote work has provided some individuals and families with more work-related flexibility and time with family. For a variety of reasons, it is plausible that this flexibility and time may have been one factor that has increased birth rates over the pandemic for wealthier or more educated women. In this analysis, we provide empirical evidence suggesting that this is the case. While the long-running decline of fertility rates across the developed world makes it difficult to be optimistic overall about the future trajectory of births, the rise of remote work is one factor that seems likely to help push in the other direction, at least in some subgroups of the population. Given the importance of birth rates for demographic change, economic growth, and much much more, this is an important issue. 

To begin, it is useful to understand how remote work has provided greater flexibility and more free time. In the U.S., individuals save on average just under an hour of commuting time every day they work from home. In addition to this added leisure and work time, this allows them to spend more time with their families, ability to do more household chores, and generally contributing more to household production. Early data suggests that workers are spending 11.1 percent of their saved commute time on childcare, and 15.5 percent on housework. Among those living with children, the share spent on childcare rose to 18.2 percent, which is consistent with pre-pandemic data showing that mothers and fathers who work remotely spend substantially more time with their children on days they work from home. Other research has shown that time spent on parental care of their own children is associated with more positive reports of subjective well-being; that is, people tend to derive satisfaction and happiness from being with their own children.

In addition, remote work provides some workers an added flexibility about not just where to work, but also when. This flexibility allows parents to not just have more time for childcare overall, but also more control over how they spend that time, making it easier to contribute to the sometimes inflexible schedules that parenting can require. Indeed, in pre-pandemic data, the number one reason parents stated they worked from home was “to coordinate their work schedule with their personal or family needs.” 

Overall, time-use patterns both pre- and post-pandemic make it plausible that remote work has made being a parent easier both for the remote parent, who can now help more, and the non-remote parent, who now has more help. There is some data that suggests this does indeed lead to higher birth rates. First, on the suggestive side, Bailey, Currie, and Schwandt find that increases in post-pandemic birth rates were concentrated among the college educated, whom they note, “saw drastic reductions in the opportunity cost of having a child, when they were able to work from home and work schedules became more flexible.” Somewhat more direct evidence can be found in Billari, Giuntella, and Stella (2019) who find that expanded broadband access in Germany pre-pandemic increased birth rates among more educated women. But altogether, the intuitive case for how remote work might support fertility is clear, and there is some suggestive evidence that the evidence remains fairly indirect. 

We add to this literature using two waves of a survey of the Demographic Intelligence Family Survey (DIFS-5 and DIFS-6) conducted in April and September 2022, respectively. This biannual survey developed by the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence to survey family and fertility dispositions samples 3,000 U.S. females ages 18-44. The survey is designed specifically to assess reproductive intentions and fertility outlook, hence its focus on females of reproductive age—that is, people who may plausibly have more children. EIG assisted in survey instrument design for DIFS-6 and provided some of the funding for the survey, and DIFS-5 already included a remote work question. Respondents were weighted to match the June 2020 CPS by age, race, prior birth history, income, and state. Because the survey does not sample men, it specifically explores how remote work may be impacting the lives and family dispositions of American women. Because DIFS has been operating for several years, we are able to ensure that our baseline results for fertility intention questions are not skewed vs. prior waves, and we have access to a rich set of control variables covering many elements of women’s lives such as impacts on fertility intentions, desires, ideals, recent changes in plans, and broader attitudes or dispositions. The data also provides numerous detailed demographic and socioeconomic information, allowing us to control for a broad set of other factors. 

First, in terms of family formation, after controlling for a variety of factors like age, race, education, relationship status, prior number of children, and recent changes in financial health, we find that currently unmarried remote workers were significantly more likely to plan on getting married in the next year. The effect is quite large and robust to a range of alternative control variables. One speculative explanation for this effect is that remote workers now have higher migration rates than other workers, according to data from the American Community Survey; thus, remote work may have enabled people interested in marriage to relocate closer to a potential spouse. In other words, remote work may have helped alleviate the two body problem.”

Next, we assess whether women are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. This question is a good indicator of very near-term fertility outlooks, since respondents generally have a pretty clear and stable idea whether they are pregnant or trying to conceive, or not. When looking directly at the impact of remote work on this variable with the same controls, we find that remote workers are indeed more likely to be pregnant or trying; however, the difference is not statistically significant.

When we focus on the subset of workers who are doing relatively well, we see a larger and more statistically significant impact of remote work on fertility. Indeed, the association of remote work with likelihood of near-term pregnancy effort appears to increase monotonically with how self-reported household financial conditions have changed over the past year. Women whose household finances have gotten “much better” in the past year are more than 10 percentage points more likely to report being pregnant or trying to be so if they are remote, whereas for women with stable or deteriorating financial situations, there’s no difference between remote and non-remote. Remote work seems to help women in improving circumstances to capitalize on those improvements and convert financial success into family life.

Next, we turn to longer-term intentions. In particular, we look at the subsample of women who said that their ideal number of children was higher than their actual current number of children; that is, we analyze intentions to have more children exclusively among women who say they would ideally like to have more children. In other words, we analyze how remote work is associated with women having realistic intentions to achieve their ideal family size. We consider women who believe their ideal family size is attainable and thus intend to reach it, since intending not to reach family-size goals amounts to a foreshortening of family goals that are important to many people.

In general, we find that remote work increases intentions to have more children by about five percentage points, though the effect is not quite statistically significant; however, segmenting our results by age yields striking differences. Unsurprisingly, remote work possibly has a negative effect on the fertility intentions of women under age 25, given that many women prefer not to begin childbearing at those ages. For women ages 25 to 34, remote work seems to have no effect. But for women over age 35 (and especially over age 39) those with remote work have much higher fertility intentions. In other words, remote work doesn’t necessarily trigger women to initiate childbearing, but it may help older women balance the competing demands of work and family and thereby to achieve their family goals.

Likewise, when we segment our sample by number of prior live births, we find that remote work has the biggest effect for women who already have several children. Remote work had no effect on the fertility intentions of women who have no or one child. But for women with two or more children, and especially working women with four or more children, remote work is associated with greater intentions to have more children. Here again we see that remote work may not do much to help women launch their family life at first, but it can help working mothers reach their ideal family size.

Finally, we also asked women to assess their family outcomes: did they have the family life they always dreamed of; did they not have it yet but were on their way; or did they feel their family size goal would never be obtained? We find that with all relevant control variables, women who worked remotely were less likely to report the negative, disappointed outcome and more likely to report the positive, achievement outcome.

For the family achievement outcome, the effect is not significant. But these results are consistent with the intuitions laid out in the introduction, namely that remote work helps families balance work and family life better and therefore they are more likely to achieve the family life they believe will make them happiest.

Conclusion

Overall we see the impact of remote work on women’s intentions for family formation and the desire to have children. While remote work appears to have the biggest positive impact on older women who already have children, the clear positive impact on marriage rates suggests the potential for longer-run impacts—including changed fertility rates—on younger women. While the evidence is early and far from conclusive, we believe this research makes the case for the hypothesis that elevated levels of remote work during COVID made a positive contribution to the U.S. and potentially other developed countries’ fertility rates. Moreover, we believe this evidence is suggestive that the “return to the office” may contribute to falling birth rates, and that governments interested in supporting marriage and implementing pro-natal policies may be interested in considering how flexible work arrangements can be supported and encouraged.

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