Birth Rates: Who Will Replace Us?
According to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the birth rate in the United States fell to an all-time low in 2016.
Births to teens also fell to an all-time low, down from 41.5 births per thousand in 2007 to 20.3 in 2016, a 51% decline. Birth rates also fell, albeit more modestly, for women in their 20s. By contrast, births to women in their 30s and 40s grew modestly. However, the birthrate for women 40-44 was 11.3 per thousand, and for women 45-49 it was .9, lower than any age group except 10-14-year-olds. Women 25-34 had the highest birthrates, at about 100 births per thousand.
What does this mean for our population overall?
Lower birthrates aren’t always good news. If a population declines too much and has a large elderly population, as do some countries in Europe and Japan, it runs the risk of having a large dependent population. A population with fewer young people may face difficulty in caring for its elder population, have a labor shortage, and find its economy shrinking.
For instance, the population of Japan has declined dramatically over the past few decades, in part due to low birthrates and low immigration rates. Economically, this means fewer workers—and fewer consumers—creating stagnant economic growth and potentially affecting trading partners in the global economy.
Demographers monitor countries’ replacement rates, or how stable a population is based on its outflow (deaths and out-migration) and inflow (births and in-migration) of people. When we think about births only on an individual level as a personal experience, we can easily underestimate the importance of population stability for a society.
A fertility rate of 2.1 births is necessary to replace the population. According to the CDC's preliminary report, the U.S. has a fertility rate of 1.8 and has been below replacement rate since the 1970s. Immigration has prevented the U.S. from facing some of the same demographic crises as Japan and other aging nations.
Rapid growth population growth can be problematic too, in some cases leading to food shortages and other scarcities. Countries with very high fertility rates often create policies to try and slow down their population’s growth, such as promoting birth control or China’s recently discontinued (and controversial) one-child policy, which limited the number of children a couple could bear.
Likewise, countries with declining populations have created policies to nudge their fertility rates higher. From providing child care and other financial incentives to using popular culture to promote marriage and procreation, many countries facing demographic dilemmas have tried a number of fertility promoting policies, with mixed success.
While having fewer—or no children—might be advantageous for individuals, providing them with more resources, fewer time constraints, and more career flexibility, large scale declines can have significant drawbacks in the long run.
Ironically, the same social forces that drive down fertility rates (a country’s overall level of education, wealth, an advanced industrial economy, and high cost of child rearing) also makes increasing fertility rates extremely difficult.
Child bearing is an intimately personal choice, but one with significant national and global consequences when rates rise and fall dramatically. Thinking about a country's demographic realities, hat other national and global effects do population declines produce?