Empty Cradles Mean a Bleaker Future | Opinion

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.

Our birthrate has never been so low in America. What this means, practically, is that American families have foregone over seven million babies between 2008 (when birthrates were last at replacement rate) and 2020 and, if birthrates remain at 2020 levels for the next decade, will forego nine million more by 2030. Sixteen million fewer children born across two decades than would have been the case if birthrates remained at their 2007 levels is a shocking loss. These lost births are disproportionately felt among Hispanic, Native American, Black and working-class white women. This decline also means that a rising share of American men and women will be childless—current trends suggest that about 25 percent of women born in the 1990s will never have any children. Once again, the most vulnerable women in our society are paying the biggest price for today's family travails.

For years, demographers have been shamelessly erasing this story of declining fertility, claiming it's merely a "tempo" effect—meaning that lost births now will be made up later. But the rate at which women transition into parenthood has barely budged for women over age 35, even as it has plummeted for women under 35. There's no credible sign of a baby catch-up in the works. These postponed births are never going to be fully recovered by women in their late 30s and 40s. Completed fertility for American women is headed to a level well below replacement.

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Policymakers worry about these empty cradles because of what it means for the economy (dramatically slower growth, loss of economic dynamism, rising inequality), public programs (underfunded pensions, overburdened health systems, collapsing local governments), or even national security (fewer potential soldiers). But we think it's a bit perverse to expect families to "have one for the country." To us, the real tragedy of low birthrates is not the difficulties facing the Congressional Budget Office, but what it means for the millions of men—and especially women—who will not have the kids they hoped to have.

What many don't realize is that, today, women are more likely to report that they didn't have as many children as they wished to have—not that they had more children than they wished. While 25 percent of today's young women may end up childless, less than five percent of women report that they desire to be childless. Indeed, the average number of children women in the U.S. report desiring is actually rising slightly, to more than two children, according to numerous different surveys.

But births are falling because many women of childbearing age are concerned about the economic and social difficulties now associated with parenthood. They are especially worried about the financial costs of having a child, the enormous time demands of parenting and the state of the economy, according to a survey of 1,300 reproductive-age American women we sponsored in April.

These concerns are suggestive of the ways in which our declining birthrate is one of many places where growing class divides in family life are apparent. Most of the decline in birthrates has been among younger and unmarried women, while married birthrates have been stable. Meanwhile, marriage rates have fallen sharply, especially for less-educated Americans and minorities. As a result, "family life," conceived as two committed parents residing with their children, is increasingly an upper-middle-class luxury good. It is common among Americans in the top half of the economic distribution. But among the poor and working class, we are pairing off less and less, and welcoming new life into our homes less and less.

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These trends are producing a growing minority of men and women who will not marry or have children, leaving them without any kin as they head into midlife and retirement. In China, there is a term for men without kin: "bare branches." In our country, in the coming years there will be millions of men and women who could also be described as "bare branches" as they push past 50. One portent of this coming reality is that a recent survey found that the share of retiring adults with adult children living within 10 miles has fallen from 68 percent in 1994 to just 51 percent in 2016.

Another portent of this "bare branches" phenomenon is that a growing share of older Americans are living without a spouse. Today, 24 percent of Americans aged 60 and older are divorced or never married, up from 12 percent in 1960. This number will only climb in the coming years, with no clear ceiling in sight.

This is sobering, because so many of these family-less Americans will have wished they could have married or had children. Life did not work out the way they hoped. A growing number of Americans will end up aging and dying essentially alone, largely unvisited and uncared for in their final years by anyone but a nursing home attendant or home health care aide.

Doctor with newborn baby
Doctor with newborn baby Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In some ways, the isolation older Americans have experienced during COVID-19 is a harbinger of things to come. During this pandemic, many elderly Americans spent long weeks at home with no outside visitors and no outside activities—a pattern especially prevalent among those in nursing homes. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that while our survey of COVID-19-related fertility intentions showed a considerable shift towards delayed childbearing (pandemics aren't great for baby-making), a small but statistically significant share of women reported that COVID-19 made them want to have a greater total number of children. News reports about thousands of elders dying at home of COVID-19 can make the prospect of dying alone, perhaps even unmourned, seem terrifyingly plausible.

The future portended by COVID-19 is already the present for some places. Japan has one of the highest rates of childlessness in the world, with about a quarter of women born in the 1970s now childless. The consequences are predictable and harrowing. A New York Times story, for instance, recently explained how the decline of Japanese families now means that a "generation of elderly Japanese is dying alone," living in "extreme isolation," often left to themselves for weeks on end, even in death. In fact, "[the] extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found."

Increasingly lonely (and possibly embittered and reactionary) retirement is only one of the many negative consequences of low fertility. There are others: weakened intergenerational ties, fewer opportunities to share in the joyful transitions of early life, like birthdays and graduations and coming-of-age rites, an abrupt end to treasured traditions while there is no critical mass of children to learn and continue them and so on. Academic research has shown that having biological or adoptive children now makes people happier as long as it doesn't lead to financial distress.

Helping families achieve their fertility desires makes them, and correspondingly society on the whole, happier and more satisfied. The failure to attain a desired family life, meanwhile, is connected to the kind of negative outcomes now playing out among the elderly in Japan.

Financial, educational and housing-related factors are major reasons why people don't marry and have children in the United States today. That's why we have written, testified and argued extensively in favor of practical proposals to provide reasonable financial support to families, remove obstacles to marriage and create a more family-friendly society. Birthrates are not too low because the economy or the public budget needs more babies—they are too low because people want more babies, but are prevented from having them by financial and policy obstacles that can and should be addressed. If we as a nation fail to address these problems, the children we do have will inherit a shrunken, lonelier and less joyful future.

Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, chief information officer of the population research firm Demographic Intelligence and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an advisor to Demographic Intelligence.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

Empty Cradles Mean a Bleaker Future | Opinion | Opinion