Is America's Declining Birthrate Problematic? | Opinion

With the exception of Israel, the overwhelming majority of advanced, Western-style nations the world over have experienced declining birthrates over recent years—perhaps decades. To some, these trend lines are deeply worrisome, evincing deeper structural issues that must be alleviated or remedied by government redress. To others, a closer inspection and deeper historical grounding of the relevant data suggests that there is not anything to worry about—America will be just fine, thank you very much.

This week, Lyman Stone and W. Bradford Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute and Demographic Intelligence debate economist, writer and speaker Marina Adshade about whether America's falling birthrate is problematic. We hope you find it both entertaining and enlightening.

Josh Hammer, Newsweek opinion editor, is also a syndicated columnist, of counsel at First Liberty Institute and a popular campus speaker.

Empty Cradles Means a Bleaker Future

When it came to babymaking, America was once exceptional in the developed world. While fertility rates fell and fell across much of Europe and East Asia over the last half-century, the total fertility rate (the number of children a young woman today can expect to have if birthrates remain stable) in the United States was different. For decades, Americans had around two children per woman—very near the "replacement level" of 2.1 births per woman that will keep population stable in the long run, even without any immigrants.

No more. The number of empty cradles across the United States is growing. In the immediate wake of the Great Recession, fertility fell. First, it fell during the lean years after the recession, as many expected. But then, to the surprise of many commentators, the birthrate continued to fall even as the economy recovered. This year, in 2020, our firm Demographic Intelligence forecasts that the total fertility rate will fall below 1.7, potentially putting the nation on the road to the kind of exceptionally low fertility rates we have seen in East Asian countries like Japan (1.43) and China (1.68)—the latter of which only recently lifted its one-child policy. And the COVID-19 fertility fallout will only make things worse.

Falling Birthrates Are No Big Deal

Women, I am told, are leading the charge to childless future. Millions of babies missing from American life. The only possible outcome? Economic ruin and sad empty lives. But don't let the numbers fool you—the downward trend is easily explained by the shift to women giving birth a little later in life, with the biggest effect coming from the decline in teen births. Women have not abandoned parenthood. They are delaying, and they are not alone—men are delaying even longer.

Be very wary of how births are measured. For example, say you are told that 43 percent of women under the age of 40 have no children. That seems shockingly high, right? But that measure—the share of women under the age of 40 who have no children—is very sensitive to the age at which a woman gives birth to her first child.

Mother with newborn baby
Mother with newborn baby Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images