But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The fertility rate in the United States has been falling for years, dipping so low that the nation’s population would be declining without immigration, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This marks the seventh straight year that the fertility rate has dropped.
In 2017, the nationwide fertility rate was 1,765.5 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age—well below the rate of 2,100 births per 1,000 women necessary to keep the population stable. There were major regional differences: South Dakota, for example, had the highest rate in the nation, with 2,227.5 births per 1,000 women, while Washington, D.C., had the lowest with 1,421. Only two states—South Dakota and Utah—had birth rates above replacement levels.
Though the report doesn’t speculate about why fertility rates have been falling, other researchers have posited that cultural shifts, economic anxiety, and a slew of other factors likely all play a role.
“It seems like the immediate causal factor is probably the recession,” says , a sociologist at the University of South Carolina. “Fertility started to fall right around when the recession started, and it hasn’t come back up again.”
“It seems like the immediate causal factor is probably the recession,” says Caroline Hartnett, a sociologist at the University of South Carolina. “Fertility started to fall right around when the recession started, and it hasn’t come back up again.”
Childbearing decisions are often tied to our feelings about the future, says Hartnett, and “even though a lot of the economic indicators have improved, people are still not feeling optimistic about the future.”
Static wages after the last recession coupled with record-breaking credit card and student debt have left many Millennials with too much financial anxiety to have children. And there’s little support for working parents in the U.S.: Two-thirds of first-time mothers in America worked through their pregnancy, but the U.S. is one of only two countries without a national paid family leave policy, according to a recent report from the Urban Institute. A little over half of U.S. companies offer maternity leave, and only 6 percent of those offer paid leave. And childcare can be a crippling expense, eating up more than 37 percent of a minimum wage worker’s income.
The declining birthrate is most apparent in younger women, Hartnett says, which means that, if something changes and young women start feeling more optimistic about the future, the birth rate could rebound as women have children toward the end of their reproductive years.
Indeed, more and more women are choosing to delay marriage and children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age for a woman’s first marriage is now over 27—the highest it’s been since the agency began keeping track. Experts say both men and women want to tend to their careers and pay down debt before settling down into serious relationships and parenthood—if they decide to have children at all. A 2018 poll from Morning Consult and the New York Times found that most Americans planned to have fewer children than their parents. Almost a quarter of the respondents without kids said they didn’t want any, and another 34 percent still weren’t sure.
Of course, regardless of the reason, delaying parenthood can make having children more difficult. A third of Americans report having had to use some kind of fertility treatment, according to the Pew Research Center. Female fertility generally peaks in the mid- to late-20s and declines thereafter. Male fertility declines with age as well, and research shows that sperm count and motility have been dropping in general. Lifestyle choices, growing rates of obesity, and environmental pollution are all likely contributing to our growing problems with infertility. The effects of pollution are particularly concerning because they can accumulate over generations, as Daniel Noah Halpern wrote in GQ last year:
Normally, acquired traits—like, say, a sperm count lowered by obesity—aren’t passed down from father to son. But some chemicals, including phthalates and BPA, can change the way genes are expressed without altering the underlying genetic code, and that change is inheritable. Your father passes along his low sperm count to you, and your sperm count goes even lower after you’re exposed to endocrine disruptors. That’s part of the reason there’s been no leveling off even after 40 years of declining sperm counts—the baseline keeps dropping.
It’s easy to understand why increasing infertility might be a cause for concern, but a dropping birth rate in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. “A lot of countries have had fertility rates like our current rate, which is 1.76 children per woman, or lower, and have maintained it for a lot longer than the U.S. has,” Hartnett says.
Another reason the birth rate has not bounced back to pre-recession levels may be because the U.S. was experiencing what Hartnett calls a “high-fertility bubble” in the 1990s and early 2000s. A high fertility rate among immigrants, a relatively religious population, and high rates of unintended pregnancies all contributed to an inflated birth rate in the U.S. compared to other wealthy countries.
Unintended and teen pregnancy rates have both dropped. “The fact that those rates have declined is a good thing,” Harnett says. “Those have been public policy goals for a long time.” And from an environmental perspective, the fewer people, the better.
So why should Americans take note of a falling birth rate? The children born today become the nation’s workforce down the road. If the downward trend were to continue or accelerate, once the current labor force ages out, fewer and fewer people would be paying into Social Security. So far, the U.S. has been largely buffered from this by immigration, and climate change is likely to create hundreds of millions of refugees in the not-so-distant future. But it’s not at all clear how our immigration policies might change under the Trump administration, which has sought to curtail both illegal and legal immigration to the U.S., and beyond.
But according to Hartnett, there are more pressing concerns than the current birth rate. “The thing that I think is worrying is the fact that people in the U.S. face real challenges related to having children: Childcare is very expensive; college is very expensive; housing in cities with well-paying jobs is very expensive; we have no right to paid maternity or paternity leave,” she says. “So our system makes our lives harder, and I think that the falling fertility rate is a symptom of that.”