After declining for years, U.S. birth rates have ticked upward again, but it’s not enough to buck the long-term decline.
Because rates were so low in 2020, “we’re just getting back where we would’ve been had we not had that pandemic decline,” said Karen Benjamin Guzzo, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Carolina Population Center.
This phenomenon isn’t, by any means, unusual.
Some of that, he explained, is just people delaying a birth for a year or two, which means the rates tend to jump up for a bit after the calamity. “Then things sort of level out.”
But while the number of babies might be back on the expected track, there are some interesting shifts in who is having babies, who’s not and why.
A quick look at the numbers
There are a few possible reasons for that decline. Birth rates generally dip during recessions, but the particulars of the pandemic made the dip more unusual.
But something changed partway through 2021: Births began to recover. The fertility rate increased to 56.3 births, up by 1 percent from the previous year.
So who’s having children? And who isn’t?
Birth rates, which declined for most age groups during the first year of the pandemic, continued their downward trend for women in their teens and early twenties but not for age groups in their thirties and forties.
Teen birth rates, for example, dropped dramatically by 7 percent from 2020 to 2021 and by 10 percent over the year before. For women over the age of 25, birth rates increased by a significant amount.
Many people are also having their first child later in life. The mean age for women at the time of their first birth has increased from 21 to 27 between 1970 and 2019. Men tend to skew older.
“There’s a general norm that people want to wait a little longer,” said Guzzo. Many people are delaying having children until they feel ready, which has a lot to do with perceptions of themselves compared to their friends and family members.
“Covid accelerated that to some extent,” said Santelli. Older age groups, who, prior to the pandemic, had been hoping to have kids before long, likely felt more family pressure to finally have any kids they had wanted to have, he said.
Taking a step back
Population experts generally see what happened during the pandemic as a continuation of historical trends. Nationally, birth rates have been dropping since the postwar baby boom in the late-1950s.
That decline in the U.S. has largely been driven by the drop-off in teen birth rates, which has been particularly steep since the early 1990s, and unintended births. A few factors precipitated this long-term trend.
For one, there has been a change in family values and finances. Back in the postwar era, Santelli said, it was more popular for young people to form families right out of high school. Beginning with the end of World War II, more women started going to college and entering the workforce, which meant holding off on kids. Part of that has been because of increased messaging, such as through teen pregnancy programs, to stay in school for longer, he said.
Another major factor has been increased contraception use. “We’ve done a better job of providing contraception to young women through school clinics, through family planning clinics, through long-acting reversible contraception, through condom availability programs,” Santelli said.
Entering a recession with another in the rearview mirror
But something unusual happened with the Great Recession, furthering these downward trends and impacting the younger population who might otherwise have kids. (The ones who want to, anyway.)
Birth rates dropped, as expected during times of economic distress, said Guzzo. But remember how birth rates usually bounce back after a catastrophic event? Well, that didn’t happen — even when the capital-E economy started looking better, she said.
That study’s authors did notice that a larger percentage of people didn’t want kids (8 to 16 percent of people in the 1990s and 2000s weren’t planning on having kids, up from 5 to 8 percent in the 1960s and 1970s), but they didn’t think that fully accounted for the decline in birth rates. (There are fewer unintended births, for example.)
“Then you look at young adults — the people who are supposed to be having children — and they were not doing nearly as well,” said Guzzo. They were facing all kinds of financial challenges: crushing student debt, a housing bubble that made securing a mortgage virtually impossible for some, jobs that weren’t rewarding or stable or the inability to move to cities where the job growth was.
Young adults were stressed about these factors in the years leading up to the pandemic, Guzzo said. “The other thing that happened during the pandemic, then, is it really kind of awoke some of our discussions that we should have long been having, to be honest, about how difficult it is to be a parent in the United States,” she said.
Without a national child care system, child care has become very unaffordable for many people. “In some places it’s more than like your mortgage, and I think there’s even a few states where it’s more expensive than a college education,” she said. A lack of a substantial social safety net makes it challenging for many people, Guzzo and Santelli said.
Guzzo’s recent research also found evidence that people aren’t having children as early as they thought they would and may be reducing the number of children they have later on.
“The transition to adulthood [is] harder for young adults today,” Guzzo said, “and they still want many of the same things.”
The global perspective
This is on par with what’s happening globally. “The United States has generally enjoyed higher birth rates in some of our peer countries in Western Europe and East Asia,” said Guzzo.
“We’ve typically hovered around two, a little over two kids through the nineties and early-2000s.” Two — the magic number that many industrialized countries aim for.
“It’s oversimplifying,” said Guzzo, “but generally having two kids is a good level because that’s what we consider roughly around replacement level.” That basically means people are replacing themselves, she explains, which is good for population stability. “The United States, of course, grows other ways because we have a lot of immigration.”
What impact will the Dobbs decision have on family planning?
The Dobbs decision’s impact on birth rates remains to be seen. “It’s too early yet even to see the impact of Dobbs on birth rates,” said Santelli. Though he thinks it will have considerable impact in some states.
Guzzo is more skeptical about the impacts on fertility rates, though she believes there will be other consequences. “We’ll probably see more maternal mortality and morbidity — people who, for health reasons, cannot or should not carry this pregnancy to term and will suffer from it,” she said.
These abortion restrictions may be just the tip of the iceberg for what might happen — contraception regulations and more difficulty in people accessing family planning services, which may result in an uptick in teen and unintended births, she said.
Will the uptick be sustained? Probably not. If we continue on the same trajectory as our peer countries, the birth rate will likely stabilize at a lower level, Guzzo said.
The road ahead
“If we continue to fall and fall and fall, then we might have to rethink a lot of our other social programs and how we structure our labor market and our immigration policies to account for changes in our natural increased population,” said Guzzo.
That’s not an inherently bad thing, though. Public policy, Guzzo said, around Social Security, housing, or immigration, for instance, can be adjusted.
What she’s concerned about, she said, is young adults feeling like they can’t have any children they might want because they don’t feel confident that their future is secure enough. “That’s a societal failure.”
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