The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has just released its latest statistics on U.S. births. Boring, you say. Not so. Historic birth patterns tell us a lot about where the country has been – and where it might be going.
We are now experiencing some of the lowest birth figures ever. In 2018, U.S. births totaled 3.788 million, the lowest figure in 32 years. Even worse was the so-called replacement rate: the average number of children each woman must have to stabilize the population, disregarding immigration.
This is roughly 2.1 children for every woman. The same replacement rate is also expressed as 2,100 lifetime births per 1,000 women. In 2018, the actual number was 1,728. This was the lowest since at least 1909, when records were first kept, and probably the lowest in U.S. history, because women in the 19th century typically had many children, notes statistician Brady Hamilton of the National Center for Health Statistics.
We are in the twilight years of the great post-World War II baby boom, which ran from the end of the war until 1964. Now we are in the midst of the great bust. To be sure, there are nuances. Since 1991, the number of teenage births has dropped by more than half, which – given the rigors of raising children – is surely a good development. Likewise, birth rates for women 35 years and up are rising.
Still, the main story here is that we’ve quietly altered the nation’s social priorities. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute suggests that a decline in religious beliefs is one underlying cause. As secular beliefs rise and religious attitudes fall, birth rates have dropped. Religious “attitudes and values … bear on family size,” says Eberstadt.
As a society, what we’ve done in recent decades is to create a new life stage – something after adolescence and before adulthood, assuming that you define getting married, buying a home, having children as one version of adulthood. We lack a catchy label for this new life stage, but we all know it when we see it.
The main impetus for this transformation has been a flood tide of women into the paid workforce. Millions of jobs that were once off-limits to women are no longer. Personal and professional choices have proliferated. Men have adapted, or haven’t.
As a result of women focusing on their careers, women and men have delayed marriage, homebuying and having children. By and large, they’re not ready just after college or high school. They have more choices than did their counterparts in the 1950s and early ’60s. They can travel; they can sample different occupations and locations. In 1968, typical American men and women first married at ages 23 and 21, respectively; now those figures are 30 and 28.
Nor is that all. So-called “millennials” – those born from 1981 to 1996 – are also squeezed economically. The 2007-09 Great Recession left a hangover of uncertainty and lost opportunities.
“The economy [varies] for each generation,” says a recent report from the Pew Research Center. “While the Great Recession affected Americans broadly, it created a particularly challenging job market for millennials entering the work force. The unemployment rate was especially high for America’s youngest adults … a reality that would impact millennials’ future earnings and wealth.”
We already know a great deal about America’s future based on birth rates and other demographic information. It will be older, based on longer life expectancies and low birth rates. It will be less white (and more Hispanic and Asian), based on current birth rates and immigration patterns. No major racial or ethnic group will command a majority of the population (the Census Bureau estimates that non-Hispanic whites will lose their majority status in the early 2040s).
As for the postwar baby boom, its oldest members hit the traditional retirement age of 65 nearly a decade ago, and its youngest members will do so by 2030. They are already ceding their dominant influence on the nation’s politics, culture, economy and foreign policy to their children and grandchildren. To boot, there’s also a massive federal debt. Good luck.
Robert J. Samuelson is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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