Even as the world recently welcomed its 8 billionth newest citizen, fertility across the globe is plummeting. And dramatically so.
Though many assume overpopulation is an issue, the opposite is actually true. Declining population is a more pressing issue. The United Nations tells us that the number of nations around the world actively developing policies to kickstart their national fertility has risen from 19 to 55 since 1986. Why? Because they realize more people are essential for a better way of living.
Fertility has taken a nosedive in the United States for well over a decade now, marked by an extremely concerning trend line. It is obvious to anyone.
Logic does not get any more basic. You cannot sustain a nation that chooses not to create its next generation of citizens.
A major academic study appeared earlier this year in the Journal of Economic Perspectives exploring the reasons behind this precipitous decline in babies in the United States. These findings are extremely interesting and support the perspective we have taken at Focus on the Family, that personal values, and the culture that drives them, matter.
This study was written jointly by highly respected demographers from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College. Two of the lead authors are research associates at the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research, the leading intellectual community of economists and demographers in the U.S.
The dramatic graph above demonstrating the precipitous drop in American fertility appears on the second page of their article. These scholars call this trendline “a striking decline in birth rates” that has “no signs of reversing.” That fact must grab our attention.
Lyman Stone, another leading demographer from the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out last year that the decade of 2010 to 2020 saw 5.8 million babies virtually disappear in American due to rapidly declining fertility rates in the U.S.
But why is this happening?
That is the main question these scholars sought to answer in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. They dismissed one popular assumption quickly.
It is not that couples feel babies are unaffordable. These scholars note the booming economic upturn in the second half of the previous decade up through the COVID-19 pandemic had no positive effect on birth rates whatsoever. The article states that “the lack of any rebound in births and, in fact, their continued decline following the end of the recession further suggests a role for factors beyond the Great Recession.”
Is it pressing student debt that too many young adults are saddled with today? The research says otherwise,
The relationship between state-level student debt and the birth rate is generally flat, giving no indication that increases in student debt are related to the aggregate reductions in birth rates.
These scholars also add, the “fact that birth rates are also relatively low in other high-income countries supports that notion” that other factors are driving our plummeting fertility.
In fact, the scholars were unable to demonstrate declining fertility was the result of any kind of external driver, explaining “we are unable to identify a strong link between any specific policies or economic factors and the declining birth rates.” (emphasis added)
Could it be that declining religious affiliation is driving down baby-making among couples? It is an important question, to be sure. But again, these scholars say no. “Again, despite the national trend [in declining religiosity], we see no evidence that states where religiosity declined the most experienced a greater relative decline in birth rates.”
This research team adds that declining fertility in the United States does not fit other traditional liberal explanations either. They directly state the facts “[do] not fit with the narrative that if the United States had more supportive government programs – such as subsidized childcare and generous paid work leave – its birth rates would be higher.”
And they conclude,
Still, the international comparisons combined with the difficulty of finding policy and economic factors to explain the sustained decline in US birth rates suggest that these factors are not driving the changes in US birth rates. [emphasis added]
So, none of the usual explanations offered by elite influencers for declining birth rates proved tenable to these scholars. What do they believe is driving this very serious problem?
It’s the Culture
These demographers came to a very different and truly interesting assumption. They refer to it in the quote cited above, that the data “suggests a role for factors beyond the Great Recession” and other economic and policy factors. But they also admit their primary cause falls outside the domain of scientific demography: the personal values and attitudes young adults are now adopting about life and life’s ultimate goals.
Rather than the problem being a shortage of liberal public policy, these researchers hypothesize that the likely reason is “shifting priorities” of couples in their most fertile years demonstrated by “a greater emphasis on individual autonomy, with a corresponding de-emphasis on marriage and parenthood.” In other words, culture is discouraging our young adults today from having children.
This conclusion, by scholars of their caliber and pedigree, deserves our full attention.
Beyond these attitudinal changes, one specific aspect of modern life that may contribute to young adults’ views about having children is how the act of “parenting” has evolved over recent decades. Parenting has become more resource- and time-intensive, both in the United States, as well as in many other high-income countries.
This means that increasingly idealistic expectations of parenthood – that everything needs to be perfect for parenting before and during that mission – and seeing children as a negotiable good toward individual personal fulfillment are taking their toll. These scholars bravely note that the evaluation of whether to become parents or not is more a negotiation of perceived goods such as free time and resources reserved for one’s self, over sacrifice and service to another and the future.
Even if that “other” is one’s child they are choosing not to have.
It is critical that all who care about the next generations, and the continuation of our individual nations, appreciate the conclusion these scholars came to which challenges much of the current narrative on the importance of fertility and the reasons for its very concerning decline,
Our empirical analyses described above do not uncover a readily identifiable, contemporaneous cause of declining births. That leads us to speculate that perhaps the key explanation for the post-2007 sustained decline in US birth rates is not about some changing policy or cost factor, but rather shifting priorities across cohorts of young adults.
What we believe about ourselves, and our duty to others and the future, matters greatly. And these secular scholars are telling us, very directly, that those beliefs are what will determine whether our nation has a future or not.
As we prepare to begin a new year, we should resolve, as individuals and citizens of a great nation, to take their informed warning very seriously.
Photo from Shutterstock.