The US labor market is far from a full rebound. Compared to the last recession, however, the recovery is moving at a breakneck pace.
The economy added 559,000 nonfarm payrolls in May, data out Friday showed. The reading marked a fifth consecutive month of job additions and a strong uptick from the disappointing gains seen in April. The US unemployment rate also hit a pandemic low of 5.8% and major stock indices neared record highs on the encouraging news.
Still, payroll growth hasn’t enjoyed the kind of V-shaped bounce-back staged elsewhere in the economy. At May’s pace of job creation, it would still take until July 2022 for the economy to recoup every job lost during the pandemic. It would take about another year from then to recapture jobs that would’ve been made had the pandemic not occurred. The projections also don’t take the nationwide labor shortage into account, which could further drag on job additions.
Comparing the pandemic recovery to the Great Recession and other downturns tells an entirely different story. In a Friday post, economics blogger Bill McBride of Calculated Risk contrasted job creation from recent months to that seen during post-World War II recessions.
The trend is clear: despite seeing far more severe job losses at the start of the recession, the labor market’s recovery is the most V-shaped in modern history.
A few factors explain the pronounced rebound. The government’s response throughout the pandemic was unprecedented. Congress approved roughly $5 trillion in fiscal stimulus, and the Federal Reserve eased monetary conditions through historically low rates, massive asset-purchase programs, and extraordinary lending programs. Combined, the efforts helped economic activity bounce back relatively soon after the pandemic first hit.
The nature of the recession also played a role. The economic crisis was simply a symptom of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Lockdown measures used to curb the virus’s spread were a top reason for weaker activity. Once those restrictions were lifted, Americans with pent-up demand and bolstered savings got out and revived the economy.
The current downturn also doesn’t possess the same structural problems faced in the late 2000s. The Great Recession was fueled by a collapse of integral financial systems. Long-trusted institutions were suddenly behind an economic collapse, and the government was forced to step in with then-unheard-of support. Distrust in said institutions and severe damage throughout the housing market led to a painful and plodding recovery.
The COVID-19 crisis, by comparison, was simple. A deadly virus was spreading throughout the country, so authorities forced lockdowns that caused great harm to the economy.
The US has also learned from the Great Recession and the recovery that followed. An early push for fiscal austerity and inadequate aid for state and local governments hindered the labor market’s healing for years after the financial crisis. Payrolls didn’t return to their pre-recession highs until more than six years after the initial drop, longer than any previous postwar recession.
Policymakers are trying something else this time around. The $1.9 trillion stimulus measure approved in March included $350 billion for state, city, and local governments to offset budget shortfalls. On the monetary front, the Fed’s newly updated goals signal it will maintain ultra-easy monetary conditions well after the pandemic threat fades.
“Now is not the time to be talking about an exit,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in January. “I think that is another lesson of the global financial crisis, ‘be careful not to exit too early.'”
Today’s baby bust looks unlikely to turn into a delayed baby boom.
That’s according to the latest research from Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine at the Brookings Institution, who say that births in the US are unlikely to rebound. The research comes on the heels of a recent CDC report that found the US birth rate fell by 4%, the sharpest single-year decline in nearly 50 years and the lowest number of births since 1979.
The total fertility rate – or the number of live births a woman is expected to have over her lifetime – also fell from 2.12 in 2007 to 1.64 in 2020, below the 2.1 replacement fertility rate needed for the population to naturally replace itself.
Declining birth rates during an economic downturn are typical. But the recession of 2020 was paired with a global health crisis, which could yield a stronger impact. Demographers are currently debating whether the current drop will prove to be a temporary or permanent phenomenon: Will women will end up having babies at a later date or have fewer babies overall?
Brookings’ analysis implies the latter, that US fertility rates will be below replacement levels for the forseeable future. Considering that women who were born in 1975 to 1980 had an average of around 2.2 total lifetime births, Brookings took a look at expected lifetime births for more recent age cohorts.
It forecasted the total number of children ever born based on simulated age profiles of women in the 1985 to 2000 birth cohort under conservative, moderate, and aggressive scenarios. For each cohort, the total number of children ever born per woman continues to further fall. The forecasted fertility rate for the 2000 cohort is 1.44 conservatively, 1.77 moderately, and 1.92 aggressively, all well below the replacement fertility rate.
That is all to say, women are expected to have fewer babies going forward.
A decline in births could reshape the economy
This trend isn’t just another fallout from the pandemic, according to Brookings. It follows a decade of declining births for multiple cohorts of women as they wait to have babies until a later age. The simulated fertility rates, Kearney and Levine wrote, are similar to those in high-income countries.
Christine Percheski, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, recently told Insider that the US has been slow to fall in line with worldwide birth trends. “It’s about women having access to education and employment opportunities,” she said. “It’s about the rise in individualism. It’s about the rise in women’s autonomy and a change in values.”
If Brookings’ analysis proves to be true, experts are worried the US is entering a demographic crisis that would result in an economy with an aging population that isn’t replaced by enough young workers. It could yield higher government costs and a smaller workforce that would have to front the care costs for aging populations, creating a shortage of pension and social security-type funds.
But Mauro Guillén, Wharton professor and author of “2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future” told Insider in April that the decline in births is a “temporary blip,” likely to last one to two years.
“Young couples have said, ‘Give me a rain check, I don’t want the baby now because there’s too much uncertainty,'” he said. “But they will have those babies later. They don’t cancel their plans to have babies for life.”
Regardless of what happens, a declining birth rate doesn’t have to mean devastation for the economy. It will undoubtedly be an economic shift, but such change isn’t necessarily bad. It just requires structural adjustments, like creating new policies that accommodate to changes in population in size, and for people to welcome a reshaped economy with open arms.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dropped a new report that revealed the US birth rate fell by 4%, the sharpest single-year decline in nearly 50 years and the lowest number of births since 1979.
The news seemingly sent America – and American media – into shock. One demographer deemed the trend a “crisis” in an interview with CBS, while The New York Times explored how the pandemic may be fast-forwarding American decline, and another demographer told CNN the baby bust could have the opposite effect of the 1950s baby boom.
I wrote about the baby bust a few weeks prior to the latest data, tracing the pandemic’s influence on the decision to have kids and how it could either slow down the economy in the long term or result in a delayed baby boom.
But here’s the thing: A declining birth rate isn’t necessarily bad news. It’s both the continuation of a decades-long trend and a symbol of progress in gender equity. And while it signals some economic distress, it may also represent the start of a solution to America’s affordability problem.
The big question is whether women will end up having babies at a later date or will have fewer babies overall. It’s too soon to tell.
Fewer babies doesn’t have to mean devastation for the US economy, depending on Biden’s success in boosting worker productivity with his infrastructure plans and how the economy continues to reopen. But it does mean change, and maybe the cries of despair over the declining birth rate are more about resistance to the unknown than looking forward to a reshaped America with differently shaped families. The declining birth rate is a step into the great unknown, and that could be exciting.
A sign of progress
American birth rates have been declining for six years as millennial women have been waiting to have babies until a later age. Birth rates among teens, which have fallen nearly every year for the past three decades, were down by 8% last year.
This is normal, if you look at worldwide trends.
Christine Percheski, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, told me last month that there’s been a broader shift among high-income countries and some middle-income countries for women to postpone having kids until later ages. The US, she said, was a little slower to see that increase.
Look no further than the declining fertility rate, or the number of live births a woman is expected to have over her lifetime. It tracks closely with birth rates and since 1950, the worldwide fertility rate has dropped from an average of 4.7 children to 2.4 children.
It all signals economic progress. “It’s about women having access to education and employment opportunities,” Percheski said. “It’s about the rise in individualism. It’s about the rise in women’s autonomy and a change in values.”
Women, she continued, are choosing to stay in school longer and waiting until later to marry. The Pew Research Center found that the more educated a woman, the more likely she was to postpone having a child until her 30s. This stat can be partly explained by the fact that women today find themselves with more life options than women 50 years ago (it could also indicate that educated women are financially burdened, but we’ll get to that soon).
Clare Mehta, an associate professor of psychology at Emmanuel College who studies established adults, previously told Insider that millennials are finding fulfillment in building a professional life for themselves because of new opportunities previous generations didn’t have. “Women want to have careers now before they settle down, people want to feel as though they’re financially secure,” Mehta said. “That wasn’t happening in the past.”
It’s part of how millennials are redefining adulthood. While many people have described the generation as “behind” due to their myriad economic woes, they’re really just creating a new normal.
A turning point for the economy
Now, while the rise in women’s autonomy has helped birth rates climb for women in their later 30s and in their 40s in recent years (amid the overall declining birth rate), they declined for this cohort during 2020. This might spark some concern over just how severe the effects of the pandemic are.
Declining birth rates during an economic downturn also aren’t abnormal. Recessions typically have the strongest economic influence on birth and fertility rates. “People tend to wait during periods of political and social unrest,” Percheski said.
The Great Recession saw a 9% decline in births, per Brookings, about 400,000 babies fewer than there would have been otherwise. And while the Spanish Flu only resulted in an economic contraction instead of a recession, that public health crisis also led to a drop in births. That the pandemic combines both health and economic crisis could have a greater impact on birth rates.
Looking back at the stat that more educated women are more likely to have kids at a later age in this context points to a new perspective: Education often comes with student debt. Women may be waiting to have kids not out of choice, but out of a desire to get their financial footing and pay off student debt first.
A declining birth rate therefore also reflects how expensive the US economy has become. It’s not the drop in births that’s distressing, but the affordability problem that it signifies. If we look closely at these issues, the birth rate could serve as a turning point for a better economy.
Not an economic decline, but an economic change
Experts are worried today’s baby bust will result in an economy plagued by an aging population that isn’t replaced by enough young workers. That might result in higher government costs and a smaller workforce that would have to front the care costs for aging populations, creating a shortage of pension and social security-type funds.
But what if it doesn’t?
Percheski said the country will likely need to make structural adjustments like creating new policies that accommodate to changes in population in size.
Percheski has company in the form of President Joe Biden. His American Families Plan proposes investments of $1.7 trillion in the care economy, with a focus on support for families including an expanded child tax credit and universal pre-K. It’s an ambitious proposal that, combined with a large infrastructure investment via the $1.7 trillion American Jobs Plan, seeks to boost the productivity of American workers in a 21st-century context.
Less births and less workers may not spell economic disaster if these plans – or others like them – can boost American workers’ productivity. I’ve already written about evidence that productivity has increased during the pandemic, while reopening has brought a wage boost for most workers. Inflation comes with these trends, but a more productive worker could essentially pay for that inflation, as well as paying for a prosperous society with less babies in it.
By examining some of the factors contributing to the decline in births, we can start with preventative adjustments now. Work structure in America – like expensive childcare and lack of paid parental leave – is a big deterrent to having kids.
That’s only the beginning of a few issues that could be addressed: expensive healthcare (or lack thereof), climate change, and debt are other hindrances to having kids. For many millennials, the latter comes in the form of student loans. While Biden’s Education Department has canceled billions in student debt, trillions remain outstanding. Borrowers and politicians alike have been arguing for more student-debt relief.
The exact impact this would have on births is unknown, but society needs these improvements anyway. If we do get to the point of having to make population-based changes 20 or 30 years from now, it doesn’t have to mean the economy is going downhill, but rather in a new direction.
Maybe the declining birth rate is not a problem, but a way of telling America it’s time to start a new chapter.
The predicted baby boom is looking more like a baby bust.
While many thought a year locked up would lead to some serious babymaking, Brookings Institute economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine forecasted the opposite last June: The pandemic would lead to 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021, they said.
So far, their predictions are on track.
Nine months after the first lockdowns began in the US, the number of births in the country had declined by 7%, according to data provided to CBS News by health departments across more than 24 states. And fertility rates – the number of live births a woman is expected to have over her lifetime – are already lower in the first few months of 2021, said Christine Percheski, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University.
“We’re going to see many fewer babies in 2021,” she told Insider.
The drop continues a pre-pandemic trend of declining birth rates and fertility rates, as childbearing women, many of whom are millennials, delay having children. Both of these rates decreased by 2% from 2017 to 2018, per the latest CDC data, with the birth rate hitting its lowest in 32 years. As of January 2020, the US fertility rate sat at 1.73 births per mother – a stark contrast from the peak in 1957 at 3.77 births per women.
Demographers have expressed concerns over what this means for the future of America, as the fertility rate is below the replacement rate – producing as many births each year as deaths – of 2.1 births per woman.
The decline in births over time is the result of both economic distress as well as progress for women in the workplace, with potential long-term implications, such as a smaller workforce and higher cost of caring for the aging. It’s too soon to say whether we should be concerned about these economic effects, but it’s already clear the economy is in for a big change based off what happens to the American birthrate.
Catching up to a global shift
American women are having babies later. While US birth rates have declined for nearly all age groups of women under 35, per latest CDC data, they rose for women in their late 30s and early 40s.
But this is actually bringing the US in line with worldwide trends – or helping it catch up, depending on your perspective. High-income countries, and increasingly middle-income ones, have long seen women delaying their first child until later ages compared to American women, Percheski said.
It’s a sign of better access to education and employment opportunities, a rise in individualism and women’s autonomy, better sex education, and a shift from religious-based to more secular values, she said. But on a more individual level, having kids at a later age is also a result of women choosing to stay in school longer, waiting until later to marry, and paying off student debt first.
Recessions typically have the strongest economic influence on birth and fertility rates. “People tend to wait during periods of political and social and rest,” Percheski said.
The Great Recession saw a 9% decline in births, per Brookings, about 400,000 babies fewer than there would have been otherwise. And while the Spanish Flu only resulted in an economic contraction, that public health crisis also led to a drop in births. A pandemic lumps together economic and health turmoil, which Brookings says could result in a greater impact on births.
But whether the current lapse in babymaking will translate to fewer babies overall or just a childbirth postponement, Percheski said. She said she thinks we’ll see a reduction in the number of women having two or three kids, as happened during the financial crisis.
Mauro Guillén, Wharton professor and author of “2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future” told Insider that the decline in births is a “temporary blip,” likely to last one to two years.
“Young couples have said, ‘Give me a rain check, I don’t want the baby now because there’s too much uncertainty,'” he said. “But they will have those babies later. They don’t cancel their plans to have babies for life.”
A ‘demographic time bomb?’
A decline in birth rates has sparked worries that the US may be headed for what’s known as a “demographic time bomb,” in which an aging population isn’t replaced by enough young workers.
This could slow the economy in the long term by creating higher government costs and a smaller workforce, who will have to front the care costs for aging populations. It could also create a shortage of pension and social security-type funds and impact things like school enrollment and college demand.
But Percheski said a decline in births isn’t necessarily bad – it will just require structural adjustments, like creating new public policies that respond to changes in population size.
In some ways, fewer classmates for those born in 2021 could be good, she added.”If there are fewer people competing for jobs when they hit the job market, that’s not bad from their perspective, but it does require us to make adjustments.”
America can also change now to avoid having to do it later, such as making childcare more affordable. “Raising children is one of the great joys of life, but it’s also one of the great burdens,” economist Tyler Cowen said in a recent panel with the American Enterprise Institute. “If we don’t have innovations to make raising children either easier or more fun or less costly, we’re in big trouble.”
But if the pandemic-fueled birth decline just results in women bearing children at a later age rather than having fewer kids or none at all, per Brookings, the fertility rate may be underestimated. It could even result in a delayed baby boom.
Guillen said he thinks we’ll see a higher number of births in 2022 and 2023, which could make preschools fuller. He said he’s more concerned with the mortality rate than the birth rate, but in any case the full effects of the birth decline won’t truly be seen until 20 to 30 years later.
“Generally, it would be better to have a smoother evolution of pace, but recessions always have their effect,” he said.
In fact, the generation can expect average annual real returns of just 2% on their investment portfolios – a third less than the 5%-plus real returns that millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers have seen. Credit Suisse’s analysis took in average investment returns since 1900 and forecasted them going forward for Gen Z.
The yearbook acknowledges that marked deflation could increase bond returns, The Economist reported, but it said inflation is more of a concern. What the report calls a “low-return world” is yet another another financial obstacle for the generation, who may be on track to repeat millennials’ money problems.
“Like the financial crisis in 2008 to 2009 for millennials, Covid will challenge and impede Gen Z’s career and earning potential,” the report reads, adding that a significant portion of Gen Z is entering adulthood in the midst of a recession, just as a cohort of millennials did. “Like a decade ago, the economic cost of this recession is likely to hit the youngest and least experienced generation the most.”
Gen Z was hit hardest in the workforce
Gen Z been been impacted the most in the workforce, facing the highest unemployment rates.
They entered a job market crippled by a 14.7% unemployment rate in May – greater than the 10% unemployment rate the Great Recession saw at its 2009 peak. Those ages 20 to 24 had an unemployment rate of nearly 27% when the unemployment peaked last April according to data from the St. Louis Fed, more than any other generation.
Recessions typically hit younger workers hardest in the short-term, but can reap long-term consequences.
“The way a recession can really hurt people just starting out can have lasting effects,” Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist and the director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, previously told Insider. “There’s a lot of evidence that the first postgrad job you get sets the stage in some important way for later.”
A follow-up study showed that by 2019, this cohort had narrowed that wealth deficit down to 11%. Such financial catch-up could be an optimistic sign for Gen Z in terms of regaining any ground lost building wealth during the pandemic.
However, millennials have had a 5%-plus annualized investment return on their side. With a projected 2% annual return for Gen Z, building wealth may be even harder to do.
There’s more to building wealth
Of course, stocks and bonds are just two asset classes. There are other ways Gen Z can build wealth, such as investing in real estate or by becoming successful entrepreneurs. Many Gen Zers have already embarked on an entrepreneurial path as early as their teen years, which could go a long way in wealth creation.
Within the next decade, Gen Z’s income will rise to such a point that they’ll effectively take over the economy, but their wealth could well be far behind previous generations by the time they get there.
Robust consumer spending and the likelihood of additional stimulus led Bank of America to boost its outlook for US economic growth on Friday.
Economists led by Michelle Meyer expect US gross domestic product to grow 5% through 2021, up from the previous estimate of 4.6%. The bank’s first-quarter GDP forecast was also revised higher, to 4% from 1%.
Early indicators suggest the $900 billion relief package passed by President Trump late last month is already lifting economic activity from its nearly frozen state, the economists said. Debit- and credit-card spending is up nearly 10% from the year-ago period as of January 9, compared to being up just 2% before new stimulus was rolled out.
Additional stimulus from a Biden administration adds to the bank’s bullish forecast. The President-elect revealed a $1.9 trillion relief plan on Thursday, pitching $1,400 direct payments, state and local government aid, and a $15 minimum wage as critical to reviving the virus-slammed economy.
Democrats’ new, albeit slim, majority in the Senate signals a version of the plan will reach Biden’s desk. That extra support stands to provide a major backstop for the economy through the new year, Bank of America said.
“There are risks in both directions, but we see them skewed to the upside,” the team said in a note to clients. “There is now a ‘fiscal put’ akin to the ‘Fed put.'”
Fresh fiscal relief also takes some pressure off of the Federal Reserve in the near-term, the economists added. Should new stimulus fuel stronger growth and inflation, the Fed could rein in its easy monetary policy stance sooner than initially expected.
The Biden-backed stimulus also provides the fiscal support Fed policymakers clamored for throughout 2020. If the economy weakens further, the government can coordinate a fiscal- and monetary-policy response akin to that seen at the start of the pandemic, the team said.
Still, elevated COVID-19 cases and strict economic restrictions will delay a full recovery, they added. Bank of America expects GDP will return to pre-pandemic levels in the third quarter.
While front-loaded stimulus boosted the firm’s first-quarter forecast, the early passage of a relief deal cut its second-quarter growth estimate to 5% from 7%.