Earlier this year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics unveiled findings that understandably caused a bit of a stir – in 2018, the US fertility rate hit another historic low. This is a further drop from 2017, when levels continued to dip below what would be required to sustain the current population. But is this a good or bad thing, do the stats really paint an accurate picture, and what’s behind it?
The good news
One of the biggest contributors to the decline in the fertility rate is a 7% drop in teen births, something most people would agree is pretty positive, as the majority of teenage pregnancies are unplanned. On the other end of the scale, the birth rate for women in their 30s and 40s has actually increased – demonstrating that women may simply be having children later in life, rather than not at all.
Across the world, improvements in female education and easier access to birth control have long gone hand in hand with lower birth rates. Combine this with rapid innovation in the field of fertility treatment in developed nations like the US, and it’s easy to see how this trend could be exacerbated.
Understanding the numbers
Whenever you’re dealing with large numbers and variation over time, there are different methodologies for spotting trends. When it comes to fertility, demographers typically use three common indicators to arrive at the current birth rate:
- General Fertility Rate (GFR) – the annual rate at which women are currently having children
- Completed Fertility – the number of children they ultimately have, and
- Total Fertility Rate (TFR) – the hypothetical number they will likely have based on present fertility patterns
What’s interesting about the 2018 data is that two of these measures – the General Fertility and Total Fertility Rate – now align for the first time in decades. Because the Completed Fertility rate can only be tracked retrospectively, we don’t have data on that indicator yet – but interestingly, if it follows suit from the 2016 data, it looks like this measure is actually moving up. This seems to be further evidence that the drop in the birth rate is actually more of a delay in the birth rate.
Millennials are starting their families later in life
With more young people trapped by student debt, and in many cases still living with their own parents, it’s understandable (and indeed arguably quite prudent) to delay marriage and having kids until they are more financially stable. Many extended families are still reeling from the impacts of the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009, with the resulting uncertainty that goes along with major economic downturns.
And for women who want to take advantage of jobs which were formerly reserved for their male counterparts and focus on their careers before becoming mothers, new cutting-edge fertility services like egg freezing mean they don’t have to choose one over the other. And indeed, as advancements in fertility science continue to extend the childbearing age range, we’re seeing an increased birthrate in women between 40 and 44.
For some would-be parents, the prospect of raising children on a planet in the midst of a climate catastrophe isn’t just daunting – it’s unconscionable. There is a small but growing group of men and women – the BirthStrike movement – who are going on a reproductive strike as a form of protest against government inaction against climate change.
While no-one can know for sure what the impacts of climate change are going to be, of course, the increasingly dire scientific consensus is making young adults wonder whether bringing children into the world at this point can be justified. Many feel it is simply not safe or fair on the child to do so.
As US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently put it during a Q&A on Instagram: “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK to still have children?”
Somewhat ironically, a warming planet isn’t great for male fertility either.
What are the implications of a falling birth rate?
But for a country with some 330 million residents, why does all of this matter? Demographers agree that the birth rate needs to be within a certain range – known as the ‘replacement level’ – to keep the population stable enough to replace aging workers and continue to generate sufficient tax revenue to keep the economy stable. On the flipside of this, birthrates which are too high place major strain on a country’s resources and ability to provide enough food, shelter and clean water.
So should we be concerned? William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thinks not. Compared with other developed nations like Germany, the US birth rate is still relatively high, there are more births than deaths, and there is still a growing labor force.
As the BirthStrikers would point out, perhaps our real concern should be over the planet and future the children we are having will be inheriting from us.