The Misplaced Fears About the United States’ Declining Fertility Rate

Many women may not be abstaining from having children, but simply delaying it.

Seth Wenig / AP

America’s fertility rate is in steady decline: In 2018, it dipped to an all-time low, down 2 percent from the year before, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Wednesday. American women are now predicted to have an average of 1.73 children over their lifetime. The absolute number of births has also fallen to a historic low: Roughly 3.8 million babies were born in the United States last year, the smallest tally since 1986, when the country was just starting to emerge from a recession.

Some observers are worried that the ongoing decline will have grim economic consequences in the not-so-distant future. Without enough new babies, the theory goes, America’s demographic makeup will tip further toward older generations, whose members will grow needier and less productive with age. A shrinking workforce could, over time, make this imbalance all the more unsustainable.

If the trend holds fast over the next few years, those fears may prove valid, Karen Benjamin Guzzo, a demographer and sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, told me. But, she says, the trends revealed by the new report are more complex than just the declining fertility rate, and it contains some hopeful news as well: The teen birth rate dropped by 7 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to the CDC’s analysis. Meanwhile, the rate for women ages 30 through 34 was virtually unchanged, and their counterparts in their late 30s and early 40s experienced a slight uptick in birth rates, up 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Generally speaking, the older a woman is when she has her first child, the better that child’s socioeconomic outcome.

Against this backdrop, Benjamin Guzzo argues, using that 1.73-children-per-woman stat to predict catastrophe doesn’t make sense. The common measure of a country’s fertility rate is known as its total fertility rate, or TFR. The TFR predicts the expected number of children an average American woman will have in her lifetime. Importantly, it isn’t some ongoing tally—rather, it gathers the actual fertility rate of, say, U.S. women in their 40s and extrapolates from that number to assert what the rate for women currently in their 20s will be two decades from now. TFR is a useful metric because it’s simple and enables apples-to-apples comparisons globally, Benjamin Guzzo says. But in a country and an era in which more and more women are delaying motherhood, she argues, TFR is an estimate that is bound to be skewed.

That’s especially true because, by and large, the rate at which American women of childbearing age express an interest in starting a family hasn’t changed much in the past decade, suggests research presented at a recent meeting of demographers. Nor have notions of the ideal number of children in a family. Meanwhile, a growing body of research challenges traditional assumptions about the risk factors of so-called geriatric pregnancies. Women, Benjamin Guzzo notes, have long had children in their 40s—it’s just that, in the past, they were often having their third or fourth kid.

While some of this apparently declining fertility rate may be attributable to delay, notably, a woman’s decision to delay a baby does increase the likelihood that she won’t end up ever having one. “We need to be changing how we talk about this from mostly a story about delayed births to, increasingly, a story about births that these women are simply never going to have,” Lyman Stone, a researcher at the Institute for Family Studies, told me in an email.

Whatever’s going on, people decide not to have children, or to delay having them, for all sorts of reasons, not always because they’re not interested. For instance, a 2018 study surveying healthy, egg-freezing women in the United States and Israel on their motivations found that “lack of a partner” was the primary driving force. Specifically, the study participants pointed to a “massive undersupply” of men who are university-educated and committed to fidelity, marriage, and/or parenthood.

Other would-be parents are likely putting off kids because of insufficient resources, or a sense that their environment is too unpredictable. “Economic instability and unaffordable care could be factors for people deciding to have children later in life, or not at all,” said Josie Kalipeni, the policy director of the caregiving advocacy organization Caring Across Generations, in an email. Numerous studies have attributed the growing desire to delay motherhood to financial stressors: economic uncertainty and overwhelming student debt, for example, or job instability and limited access to health insurance. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that societal problems such as climate change—which may eventually affect some women’s ability to procreate—could discourage some prospective parents from becoming parents after all.

All of which is to say: The record-low fertility rate likely isn’t a sign that the United States’ younger generations are rejecting having children. Rather, the way Benjamin Guzzo and many other observers see it, it’s a sign that the country isn’t providing the support Americans feel they need in order to have children.