Population Research and Policy Review 22: 497–525, 2003.
© 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Missing the target? Correspondence of fertility intentions and
behavior in the U.S.
Duke University, Department of Sociology
S. PHILIP MORGAN
Duke University, Department of Sociology and Center for Demographic Studies
Abstract. Building on a framework suggested by Bongaarts (2001) and using data from
the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, we describe the correspondence between
intended family size and observed fertility for the 1957 to 1961 birth cohorts of U.S. women
and men. Over an 18-year period (1982–2000), we show that while aggregate intentions are
quite stable, discrepancies are very common at the individual level. Women and men were
more likely to err in predicting number of additional births in the period 1982–2000 than to
hit their target number. A very strong predictor of over-andunderachieving fertility is initial
intended parity. Those who intended more than two children tended to have fewer children
than intended, while those who intended fewer than two children tended to have more children
than intended. In addition and consistent with life course arguments, those unmarried in 1982,
childless in 1982, and (for women) still in school in 1982 were most likely to underachieve
their 2000 intended parity (i.e., have fewer children than intended). We conclude by reﬂecting
on how the circumstances that allow discrepancies between intentions and behavior to almost
“balance” in the U.S. may cumulate differently elsewhere to produce much lower fertility.
Over the past thirty years, fertility levels in most developed countries have
dropped below the replacement level, and in some cases would produce
dramatic population decline if sustained. While a tempo adjustment for
postponed fertility raises these low rates and narrows differentials among de-
veloped countries, fertility levels for most countries remain substantially be-
low replacement even when adjusted (Bongaarts 2002; Bongaarts & Feeney
1998). This remaining variation in fertility among developed countries can-
not be explained by parallel variations in the number of children women
intend, as intended family size is slightly above two in all developed coun-
tries (Bongaarts 2001, 2002). Thus, women’s inability to meet their fertility
intentions certainly plays a signiﬁcant role in contemporary low fertility. But
what exactly are the factors involved in the process? What leads women to
consistently underachieve relative to their fertility intentions?