Our Drop in Birth Rates
Terry H. Schwadron
June 30, 2021
There have been a sheaf of news and research reports lately showing that births are way off, that U.S. states and whole countries are starting to worry about the consequences of dwindling birthrates on economics, health services, immigration and life as we know it.
Basically, birth rates are not keeping up with death rates. Early 2020 Census results show the U.S. population continues to be stagnant, lowest growth rate since 1900, hastened by disease and hard limits on immigration.
Blame or credit economics and lifestyle choice, with more financial pressure for all in a household to work, or delayed families and wider use of contraceptives, or environmental awareness or some combination of all of these. But we’re in a time of changing population demographics, far from the Zero Population Growth calls from earlier generations — and we will see it play out in lots of ways.
Aging populations require that there be enough people to work and support bulging health and Social Security services, for example. With fewer births, there are fewer replacement workers and more pressure on services just as we are looking for government to increase its support systems. That, in turn, suggests a more rational approach to immigration, an actual plan rather than xenophobic slogans. So you can see how this kind of basic change spurs thinking about policy questions — which is not our American strong suit.
Of course, birthrates dropped in the U.S. and globally during the pandemic year, but this is a more sustained drop that portends demographic change over years — and the drop is accelerating. Dropping birthrates are coming at the same time as medicines and research are extending life expectancy in wealthier parts of the world, so the whole balance of population is shifting.
Birthrates are up in some areas, including Africa, or in selected ethnic or religious populations in selected countries like Israel, where Arab birthrates far outnumber Jewish birthrates — and we can expect tensions over demographic change to reflect itself in political and policy. It has prompted China now to encourage families to have more children, after having enforced regulations to limit them to a single child. Even in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico, birthrates are falling toward, or are already below, the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.
In the United States, birthrates are down to the lowest levels in a century, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which tracks these figures. The general fertility rate in the U.S. was already at a record low before the pandemic. Over time, births among Pacific Islanders, Latinos and Blacks tend to be higher than those for Whites and Asians, contributing, naturally, to changes in the job market, the needs of housing and education and voting patterns, The mean age for first childbirth is now 27 and the percentage of unmarried mothers is at about 40% (Think child care as a practical issue, please.)
The falling birthrates are a worldwide phenomenon. Maternity wards are shutting in Italy, ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China, universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and hundreds of thousands of properties in Germany have been razed, reports the New York Times. “Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time,” said The Times. “The strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organized . . .. It may also require a reconceptualization of family and nation. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation.”
After years of worry about too much global population, the new reality is that we also could face problems from not enough population. And what we have is going to shift. Think of Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa at some point becoming more populous than China, demographers say, and then balance in whatever climate change will bring to make exactly those areas less than habitable, forcing large-scale migrations.
This is the kind of change that spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls mature to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop deepens.
In turn, families who want children later in life than in past generations are turning to the medical system for help, and fertility clinics are reportedly seeing demonstrable numbers of older patients.
In South Korea, where the fertility rate dropped to a record low to less than one child per woman in 2019, the declining birthrate and rapid industrialization has created what residents say can feel like a two-tiered society. Seoul continues to grow, increasing pressure on infrastructure and housing, but in regional towns it’s easy to find schools abandoned. There are fewer obstetricians and birth centers, regional universities are seeking to lure students with bonuses, and the government too is increasing increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy.
According to projections in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100.
In this country, we see effects from changing demographics affecting attitudes and outward hostilities over race, about jobs, and in arguments about paying for more social services. Falling birthrate is not just some interesting academic anomaly. It has a direct path to what we think we are charting as Americans.
If you accept the notion in a Washington Post editorial that “a new demographic normal is one that poses daunting economic and geopolitical challenges,” the logical question is how a dwindling cohort of younger, working-age Americans sustain the expensive social services that their parents and grandparents are counting on in retirement. “The rational answer is a robust immigration system, one that affords the nation a ready supply of scrappy, striving employees in jobs for which there are insufficient numbers of native-born Americans, as well as a steady stream of well-educated professionals to fill engineering, scientific, technology and medical jobs, among others,“ the Post argues.
Yet, our crazy political divides make such a comprehensive prospect impossible to, er, conceive. We’re asking the wrong questions, just as too often we also do with race, education, policing, climate and many of the other contentious issues of the day. We focus on current conflict with an eye towards winning rather than on a strategic outlook that could float all boats, and still highlight American exceptionalism, if that’s what you feel is needed.
Once we accept the idea that family birthrate drops are not going to change anytime soon, perhaps we can force a better look at the panic over immigration policies. We should remind our politicians that immigrants are twice as likely to start new businesses as native-born Americans, figuring into economic growth: Tesla, Google and PayPal all were started by entrepreneurs born outside the U.S. If American workers are slow to take some of the lower-paying jobs that are coming back after pandemic, we can be sure that the record surge of immigrants fleeing from Central America do want those positions, and it would make economic sense, as well as humanitarian caring, to set up a more orderly way to make this happen.
Over time, the United States will need a continuing and stable work force. If we’re not going to look to immigration, where exactly are we going to find people to accept what we pay for care of elderly patients, lower-paid hospital jobs, work in more and more automated industries and the like. Republicans have turned their back on investing in Democratic proposals to build up industries like solar panels and computer chips, even in the face of stiff opposition from countries like China.
At what point does a national security adviser make the connections for national leaders between security issues and dropping birthrates?