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.
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On Monday, China’s government said that couples will be able to have a third child, a decision meant to spark more babies in a country where population growth has hit a wall.
The backstory: Family planning restrictions have existed in China since 1980, when the governmentinstituted a one-child-per-household policy out of fear it wouldn’t have the resources to provide for a swelling population. China relaxed that cap to two children in 2015 but, following the pandemic’s baby bust, it’s realizing it needs to confront this problem more urgently.
There were 12 million births in China in 2020, down 18% annually and the fourth straight year of declines.
Demographers expect the country’s population, currently at 1.4 billion, to peak by 2025.
Why it matters: Declining population growth has profound implications for a country’s economic success. Fewer babies = fewer future workers. And it could upend existing systems of support for the elderly, because younger workers’ taxes subsidize public services for retirees.
This isn’t just a China problem
A “demographic time bomb” alarm is being sounded in dozens of countries.
South Korea’s rate of births per woman fell to 0.84 last year, the lowest in the world. For reference, the “replacement” rate that would keep a population stable is about 2.1.
The US population grew at its slowest rate since the Great Depression from 2010-2020, and its birth rate declined for the sixth straight year last year.
Germany doesn’t have enough people to fill its cities. It’s taken down 330,000 housing units since 2002.
Zoom out: While many parts of the world face stagnant population growth, others are making up for it. Africa’s population is set to double by 2050, helping the world grow from 7.8 billion people today to 11 billion by 2100.
Bottom line: As much as the Chinese government wants to grow the country’s share of the world population, it might be fighting a losing battle. The two-child policy didn’t lead to more babies, and critics say the three-child rule won’t move the needle, either.
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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.
Using the new Census data that shows births, deaths, and natural increase data for 3,143 county and county-equivalents, Insider looked at what natural population changes looked like across the nation from 2019 to 2020.
The places in red in the above map are where there were more deaths than births per 1,000 residents from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, while blue counties indicate that there were more births than deaths per 1,000 residents in those places. Insider adjusted the natural increases and decreases by each county’s 2019 population.
Based on the map, more counties in the Northeast experienced natural decreases in a year, or more deaths than births, than counties that saw natural increases in this region of the US. This was also the case in the South. For instance, every county in West Virginia, with the exception of two counties, saw more deaths than births.
There were more births than deaths in many counties that make up the Western region of the US. For instance, every county in Utah, except Daggett County, saw a natural increase from 2019 to 2020.
The following table shows the 10 counties that saw the largest natural increases per 1,000 residents among counties with at least 10,000 residents in 2019:
Although Harris County, Texas, had the largest natural increase at 35,172, Madison County in Idaho had the largest natural increase when adjusting by 2019 population estimates. This county had a natural increase of 981 people, or an increase of 24.40 per 1,000 residents.
We can also look at the places that saw more deaths than births in just a year among counties with large populations. The following table shows the 10 counties that saw the largest natural decreases per 1,000 residents among counties with at least 10,000 residents in 2019:
Although Pinellas County, Florida, had the largest natural decrease at -5,893, Sumter County in Florida, had the largest natural decrease when adjusting by 2019 population estimates. This county had a natural decrease of 1,800 people, or a decrease of 13.46 per 1,000 residents.
It is important to note that the estimates released on May 4 are not the 2020 decennial census results.
“These estimates are based on the 2010 Census and were created without incorporation or consideration of the 2020 Census results,” the Census Bureau wrote about the population estimates. “They are typically used in comparisons with the 2020 Census to make determinations about the accuracy of the estimates.”
The Census data includes estimates of net international migration, or the number of people immigrating into the county from outside the US minus people moving out of the US to a different country.
Red counties in the above map mean more people moved out than in, and blue counties mean more people moved in than out. We adjusted each county’s net international migration from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, by its 2019 population.
When adjusting for population size, some of the counties with the largest negative net international migration were located in California, Idaho, and Kansas.
We decided to also look at net international migration among just large counties. The following table shows the 10 counties that saw the largest increases from net international migration per 1,000 residents among counties with at least 10,000 residents in 2019:
Miami-Dade County, Florida, had the largest postive net international migration estimate among all counties. This county saw 28,593 more residents from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.
Some counties saw more people moving out to other countries than moving in from abroad. The following table shows the 10 counties that saw the largest decreases from net international migration per 1,000 residents among counties with at least 10,000 residents in 2019:
Based on the above table, six of the 10 counties with the largest decreases from net international migration among counties with at least 10,000 residents and adjusted by the county’s 2019 population were in California.
The county-level population estimates part of the data release on May 4 are not the same as the official numbers from the 2020 decennial census. “The estimates are based on the 2010 Census and were created without incorporation or consideration of the 2020 Census results,” the Census Bureau wrote about the population estimates.
Americans were moving during the pandemic, even if at least temporarily, and new data from the Census Bureau shows just how many counties saw more Americans moving in than those moving out to somewhere else in the US.
One Zillow survey released last month found 11% of Americans moved during the pandemic. The results showed the “highest net inbound moves in the first 11 months of 2020″ were in Phoenix; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas.
The latest data release from the Census Bureau on May 4 can give some sense of just where people were moving within the US throughout the pandemic. Census Bureau’s Tuesday release of 2020 population estimates include net domestic migration, or the number of people moving into a county from elsewhere in the US minus people moving out to another part of the country.
Red counties in the above map mean more people moved out than in, and blue counties mean more people moved in than out. We adjusted each county’s net domestic migration from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, by its 2019 population.
Based on the map, more counties in the West saw people moving in than out, while more counties in the Midwest saw more people moving out than in.
Insider previously reported that people were moving to states like Texas and Florida amid the pandemic in part due to these states lower costs of living. Based on the map, almost all of Florida’s counties saw more people moving in than out. Only eight of Florida’s 67 counties saw a negative net domestic migration.
Although counties out West mainly had postive net migration, the majority of counties in California had negative net domestic migration between 2019 and 2020. San Francisco County, Napa County, and Santa Cruz County, are three counties in The Golden State that had more people moving out than in.
Fifty-five of the 62 counties that make up New York had a negative net domestic migration from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Among the counties in the state that did see a positive net domestic migration, Saratoga County had the largest increase at 830 new residents or 3.61 people per 1,000 residents when adjusting for the county’s 2019 population.
Some counties saw really large increases from net domestic migration compared to others. The following table shows the 10 counties that saw the largest increases from net domestic migration per 1,000 residents among counties with at least 10,000 residents in 2019:
Almost all of the top 10 are located in Southern states. The top two counties with the largest net domestic migration, adjusted by the county’s 2019 population and among counties with 10,000 residents, are both located in Florida. Four of the 10 counties are located in Texas.
While some counties experienced big increases of more people moving in than out, others saw large decreases. The following table shows the 10 counties that saw the largest decreases from net domestic migration per 1,000 residents among counties 10,000 residents in 2019:
The table shows that some other counties in Southern states had large decreases from net domestic migration when adjusting for population size and among counties with at least 10,000 residents. Some of the other counties that saw a lot of people moving out are in the Midwest.
It is important to note that the Vintage population figures released earlier this week are not the same as the figures from the 2020 decennial census. “The estimates are based on the 2010 Census and were created without incorporation or consideration of the 2020 Census results,” the Census Bureau wrote about the population estimates.