Economic uncertainty and expanding opportunities for women have lowered the US birth rate – and it could lead to future labor shortages

couple on couple looking at phone reading newspaper
Economists estimate that a family will spend on average $233,610 per child before they are 18 years old.

  • From 1950 to 2021, we saw a 50% decline in US birth rates, from 25 births per 1,000 people to 12.
  • Sociologist Ann Oberhauser says the decline is tied to progress in areas like reproductive medicine and access to education.
  • Lower fertility rates could translate to possible future labor shortages in many sectors of the economy.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The decline in population growth in the US from 2010 to 2020 is part of a broader national trend linked to falling birth rates, but also immigration changes and other factors. In May of 2021 the scope of that change became clear, with a record low of 55.8 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2020, a 4% drop from 2019. Other countries are facing similar slowdowns in population growth.

This shift has been underway in the US for many years.

In the early 1900s, my grandfather grew up in a family with nine children in rural Iowa. They all worked hard to maintain the farm and support the family. Some of the children left the farm to attend college, start families, and find work elsewhere. My father grew up in a city and worked as an adult to support his family as the sole income earner.

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The next generation, the baby boomers, was raised during a period of economic expansion that accompanied an uptick in fertility – the average number of children born to a woman in her reproductive years. Post-boomer generations have had fewer children, contributing to a 50% decline in US birth rates between 1950 and 2021, from 25 births per 1,000 people to 12.

Economic opportunities, social norms, and changing gender roles – especially expanding education and employment options for many women – help to explain why fertility has slowed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. That change has repercussions for trends in workforce numbers, employment, health care, housing, and education.

Explaining the decline in fertility

Each generation experiences unique circumstances that affect fertility. The overall trend in declining birth rates, however, is largely due to women’s changing roles, employment shifts, and advances in reproductive health.

After World War II, the US saw rapid change in gender roles with the expansion of women’s education and entry into the labor force. Starting with the baby boom period from 1946 to 1964, many middle- and upper-class women had increased opportunities to get an education beyond high school, which had typically been the end of women’s formal education.

In 1950, only 5.2% of women had completed four years of college or more. By 2020, this proportion rose to 38.3%.

In comparison, 7.3% of men completed at least four years of college in 1950 and 36.7% in 2020 – a smaller increase than for women.

Increases in college education and rising employment among women tend to delay motherhood. Women with higher educational levels, especially unmarried women, tend to put off childbearing until their early 30s.

In addition, medical advancements and federal regulators’ approval of the birth control pill in the 1960s expanded reproductive freedom for women.

This situation contributed to women’s becoming mothers later in their lives. For example, the median age for first-time mothers among women who were born in 1960 was 22.7 years, compared with 20.8 years for women born in 1935.

Moreover, the teen birth rate was a record low in 2019, with 16.7 births per 1,000 girls and women ages 15 to 19. Birth rates remain higher, however, among Latina and Black teens than teens who are white or Asian. In contrast, the share of women ages 40 to 44 years who have ever had children increased from 82% in 2008 to 85% in 2018. Foreign-born women tend to have higher birth rates than US-born women.

Geographic location also reveals important differences in the US birth rate. Women in New England have fewer children, partly because of higher levels of education. In contrast, women in the South and Great Plains have among the highest birth rates in the US.

Finally, economic uncertainty affects fertility trends. Economists estimate that a family will spend on average $233,610 per child before they are 18 years old. Financial upheaval during the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 also contributed to declining birth rates, while the COVID-19 pandemic saw a 4% decline in fertility rates in 2020, the lowest since 1979.

A look at the future

Fewer babies and young people and a growing older population will undoubtedly affect future generations.

Several developed countries in Europe have also experienced declining fertility rates, with widespread social and economic impacts. In Italy, for instance, rapid drops in fertility have led to closing hospitals and schools. In 2019, the average Italian family had 1.2 children, part of a declining trend since the 1960s, when it was more common for families to have four children. As a result, Italy’s percentage of seniors is second only to Japan, with growing concern for future labor supplies.

In the US, lower fertility rates translate to fewer working-age people and possible labor shortages in many sectors of the economy. According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of people age 65 and older has been growing, increasing by one-third since 2010.

Many economists and social scientists recommend a restructuring of work to support and retain the shrinking number of workers. These recommendations include more flexible work conditions, access to quality and affordable child care, immigration reform, and job security. Several of these measures would provide much-needed support for parents and particularly women in the workforce.

Second, living spaces and residential housing may also have to accommodate this growing elderly population with arrangements that include assisted living, retirement communities, and ways for people to age in place. These housing changes would help women in particular, who live longer than men.

Third, health services such as insurance, medical care, and employment will have to adjust to these demographic shifts as more resources are needed to support an older population.

Finally, declining fertility rates are a growing concern for educators and policymakers. The so-called “demographic cliff” will inevitably lead to school closings and consolidation, and declining student recruitment and enrollment in the US. One projection is that there will be 10% fewer college students in 2054 than today.

The overall decline in fertility rates has far-reaching effects on society and future generations. In the early 1900s, college education and a career were not options for women like my great-grandmother. Advances in reproductive health and women’s expanding access to education and employment have produced a demographic shift with implications for work, housing, health care, and education.

Ann M. Oberhauser, professor of sociology, Iowa State University

The Conversation
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This map shows how many same-sex couple families live in each state

same-sex family
  • June is Pride Month, and more and more US adults self-identify as LGBT, according to Gallup.
  • The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey includes data on how many households in a state are same-sex couples.
  • Delaware had the highest share, excluding DC, of same-sex couple households in a state at 1.3%.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

June is Pride Month, and an increasing share of US adults identify as LGBT.

According to Gallup, 5.6% of Americans 18 and over identified as LGBT in 2020, up from 3.5% in 2012. Additionally, 54.6% of LGBT adults self-identified as bisexual in 2020. At the generation level, 15.9% of Gen Z identified as LGBT compared to 9.1% of millennials and 3.8% of Gen X.

“One of the main reasons LGBT identification has been increasing over time is that younger generations are far more likely to consider themselves to be something other than heterosexual,” Gallup wrote.

Data from the Census Bureau also provides some information about LGBTQ+ adults. The Census’ American Community Survey has data about who makes up households, including same-sex married and unmarried couples.

Based on the 2019 American Community Survey, the most recent year with data available, there were 980,276 same-sex couple households in the US. Among same-sex couple households, 568,110 or 58% were same-sex married couple households. Less than 1% of the 122,802,852 total US households, 0.8%, were same-sex couple households in 2019.

We can further see the breakdown at the state level. The following map shows the share of same-sex couple households in a state in 2019:

Delaware had the highest share of households in the state that are same-sex couples. In Delaware, 4,793 of the 376,239 households, or 1.3%, were same-sex couple households in 2019. DC had an even higher share at 2.4%, where 7,003 of the 291,570 households were same-sex households in 2019. On the other hand, North Dakota had the smallest share among households in the state at 0.2% or 785 households.

Although Delaware had the highest share among households in the state, California had the largest number. There were 85,104 same-sex married couple households and 50,752 same-sex unmarried couple households for a total of 135,856. That means 1.0% of households in California are same-sex couples.

Overall, the Census Bureau wrote 65.1% of same-sex couples in 2019 had both partners working, higher than the 51.1% among opposite-sex couples. Male same-sex couples had a slightly larger percentage of both partners working compared to female same-sex couples at 75.8% and 72.6% respectively.

Additionally, the Census Bureau found based on the Current Population Survey that 14.7% of same-sex couples in the US in 2019 had at least one child under 18 at home. That is lower than the 37.8% for opposite-sex couples. This may in part explain why same-sex couples are more likely to have both partners working than opposite-sex couples.

“The presence of young children may influence a couple’s decision to have one parent stay home to care for the children,” the Census Bureau wrote.

The percent share of same-sex couples with children where both parents were employed was higher than the share for opposite-sex couples, at 72.4% and 65.6% respectively, based on 2019 data from the American Community Survey. The shares were still higher for same-sex couples than opposite-sex couples when looking at working partners with children under 6 and between 6 to 17.

The Census Bureau notes things like age and marital status may also play some role in the differences in percentages between both partners working for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

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West Virginia had the largest population drop in the US from 2010 to 2020, the census shows

West Virginia
A lake in Bluefield, West Virginia.

  • West Virginia lost a higher percentage of its population than any other US state, per the census.
  • The lack of economic opportunity and low pay are two factors in the state’s population decline.
  • The poverty rate in West Virginia is 16%, higher than the national average.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

From 2010 to 2020, West Virginia lost a higher percentage of its population than any other US state, according to new data from the US Census Bureau.

In 2010, the population of the Mountain State stood at 1.85 million, but by 2020, that number had declined to 1.79 million people.

The population loss of 3.2%, or roughly 59,000 people, made the state one of only seven others across the country that are set to lose a congressional district following the 2020 Census.

According to the Associated Press, some of the main reasons cited for West Virginia’s population loss are a lack of economic opportunity, low pay, the state’s political climate, and poor cell phone and internet service.

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The poverty rate in West Virginia is 16%, which is higher than the national average.

In 2019, the national poverty rate was 10.5%, according to the Census Bureau.

The Census data revealed that from 2015 to 2019, only 76% of the state’s households had broadband internet subscriptions.

In an attempt to stem further population losses, West Virginia officials are targeting remote workers who move to the state with $12,000 incentives, along with complimentary passes for recreational destinations including whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and horseback riding.

The state hopes to capitalize on the appeal of its ruggedness and open spaces in reversing its population losses.

“We want to give folks the opportunity to escape big cities,” state tourism cabinet secretary Chelsea Ruby told the Associated Press last month. “In West Virginia, there are no crowded places, long commutes or traffic jams. There’s just plenty of places to put down roots and explore the great outdoors.”

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