Americans are not having enough babies.
The United States is one of 91 countries with a fertility rate too low to replace the existing population. New research warns global fertility rates could collapse even further over the next century and cause dramatic population declines.
Since today’s children are tomorrow’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers, fewer of them now can result in big problems later. U.S. total fertility, the average number of children per woman, fell from 3.77 in 1957, to just 1.73 in 2018. Widespread contraception, legalized abortion, education, careers, urbanization, and economic insecurity have worked together to dramatically reduce birth rates.
Even women who want children aren’t sure about having them.
“Yes, I fell in love, and I just got married a few months ago,” 32-year-old Gina Tomaine wrote in Philly Magazine. “Once my husband and I entered wedded bliss, we started looking to do married-people things. … But the baby in the baby carriage? For now, the kid question hangs between us, unanswered.”
Her uncertainty mirrors much of her generation’s. Now in their prime childbearing years, millennials are delaying marriage and parenthood and having fewer overall offspring, often citing debt and child care costs. While some young adults don’t find a spouse or suffer involuntary childlessness, others choose “child-free” lives.
“Birth rates are falling further and faster than anyone ever thought possible,” Population Research Institute President Steven Mosher said.
Mosher, who is Catholic and has nine children, said cultural attitudes add to the economic factors working against fertility. “If you have a culture which disparages mothers and motherhood, you don’t get very many children.”
Christian households were once noticeably larger than other American families. But by 2018, researchers found childbearing rates among conservative Protestants had become “statistically indistinguishable” from non-Christians. Catholic family size also has declined.
“Even among Christian couples, the idea of not only delaying children but choosing to not have them at all is, in many circles, noncontroversial,” John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, recently said on the podcast Breakpoint. Noting the Bible calls children “blessings,” he urged Christians to challenge the “culture’s bad assumptions about children” and welcome them.
Welcoming children could become essential if researchers from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics are correct. In contrast to UN projections of continued population growth, Stein Emil Vollset’s study warns of dramatic depopulation by 2100 caused by low fertility rates. The Lancet published his findings on July 14.
The researchers forecast that 183 of 195 countries will experience declining fertility. They expect global fertility to fall to 1.66—far below the replacement level of 2.1. U.S. fertility rates are expected to fall to 1.53 or lower. The population of 23 countries would plummet by half or more.
Study co-author Christopher Murray told the BBC the forecasts are “jaw-dropping,” adding, “It will create enormous social change. It makes me worried because I have an 8-year-old daughter, and I wonder what the world will be like.”
Though the scientists predicted the United States would fare better than many countries, it could still face a 10 percent population decline after 2050. The projections depend on immigration to bolster working-age populations. Without enough immigration, the decline could worsen.
Researchers presented four options for avoiding this future: Support women choosing to have children, restrict birth control, have older people work longer, or encourage immigration.
Author Jonathan V. Last warned of depopulation dangers in his book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. He explained that without enough babies, societies age and become top-heavy as the labor force and tax base shrinks. That makes it harder to finance programs like Social Security.
The United States already shows signs of top-heaviness. The Census Bureau projects people older than 65 will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history by 2034.
Mosher agreed depopulation hurts economies by reducing the innovation, investment, and productivity typical of working-age adults: “The socially responsible thing to do is to have children, to provide for the future by having children.”