Falling Birthrates Are No Big Deal | Opinion

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.

To understand why this is the case, imagine a hypothetical world in which 100 percent of 40-year-old women have had at least one child and consider two extreme scenarios.

In the first scenario, all women have their first child when they are exactly 15 years old. In that scenario—call it the "All Moms Are Teen Moms" scenario—what is the share of those who have at least one child? It is exactly 100 percent.

In the second scenario, all women have their first child when they are exactly 29 years old. What is the share of women under the age of 40 who have had at least one child in this "All Moms Are Ready to be Moms" scenario? Well, assuming an equal number of women in every age group, the share is now just 44 percent.

In both scenarios, everyone has at least one baby, so it not possible to be worse off even though the share is much lower in the second. We are probably better off because women waited until they finished school, established careers and, in most cases, married before becoming mothers.

Women delaying having children is not the whole story, but it is a big part of the story. Especially since this change hasn't happened slowly over time—it's the result of a seismic demographic shift over the past decade.

Let's look at another problematic measure of the changing patterns of births: the hypothetical number of births a woman will have over her lifetime. That total fertility rates (TFR) fell from 2.12 births per woman (15 to 44) in 2007 down to 1.73 birth per woman last year.

While American commentators might be clutching their pearls over a TFR below the rate needed to keep populations constant without immigration (just above two), the other wealthy nations in the world have had TFRs below that rate for the past 40 years. Canada's rate has been below that level since 1980, and Germany's since 1972. Contrary to what you might have heard, low fertility rates are not bad for economic growth, nor do they lead to high levels of government debt.

Technology is driving growth in the U.S.—not population growth. And that will only be truer when the current generation of babies reaches working age 25 years from now.

To understand why TFR might not be the best measure right now, we need to talk about that seismic demographic shift I mentioned earlier—the decline in teen birthrates.

The one thing that sets the U.S. apart from its comparator countries is the shockingly high rates at which teenagers give birth. Just before the Great Recession of 2007, there were 42.5 births for every 1000 women age 15 to 19. For comparison, the teen birthrate for Canada was 13.7, and for Germany it was 9.7. The last time these countries had teen birthrates at the U.S. level was in 1969 for Canada, and 1972 for Germany.

In 2010, the Obama administration established the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and, over the intervening decade, that public spending combined with improvements in long-acting contraceptives (and state-level initiatives to pay for those contraceptives) helped reduce teen birthrates to a celebration-worthy 16.6 births per 1000 women.

Had the teen births stayed at the 2007 level, there would have been two million more babies born to teen mothers by 2019.

Here's something to remember—the total fertility rate is nothing more than a best guess at how many children will be born, based on the assumption that there is no change in the ages at which women give birth.

TFR assumes that the average 15-year-old woman today will have the same number of births 10 years from now as the average 25-year-old woman has today—and that she will have the same number of births 20 years from now as the average 35-year-old woman today. This measure is a good predictor when the ages at which women give birth are unchanging, but it fails when there are dramatic shifts in the timing of births.

Newborn baby
Newborn baby Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

We have a good example of this already. Near the height of the baby boom (1960), the TFR was 3.65 births per woman. You might think that this was standard before the birth control pill was available, but this was a big increase from the mid-1930s, when the TFR hovered just above two births. What drove up the TFR in 1960 was the observation that women were getting married at very young ages and, as a result, having more babies as teenagers. That teen birthrate we talked about a moment ago peaked in 1957 at 96.3 births per 1000 women, up from 59 births ten years earlier.

Did these 1960 moms end up having 3.65 children on average? Not even close—they had only 2.45. The TFR for 1960 overestimated the number of births by 1.25 because of the dramatic increase in teen births in the preceding years.

Today, it is very likely that the rapid decrease in teen births is causing the TFR to underestimate the number of births we will see in the coming decades. By how much, no one knows. But it is entirely possible that by the time this generation of women has reached an age of mid-40s, the average number of births will be greater than the number needed to keep the population constant. In fact, I would bet on it.

There is some evidence to support that opinion. One fertility measure that gets little fanfare is completed fertility—the number of children women have had by their early 40s. According to the Pew Research Center, completed fertility hit its lowest level in 2006 and increased over the next decade. We don't yet know what completed fertility is for 2019, but don't be surprised if this trend continues as more women have children in their 30s and 40s.

Women alone are not responsible for that delay in motherhood. For the majority of heterosexual women, motherhood is preceded by finding a suitable and willing partner to be a father to those children. Men want to have children, of course, but they don't seem to want them at an age that women want to have children. In every age group, the share of single childless men who say they intend to have a child is greater than the share of women who want the same—except when men and women are 25 to 34 years old, an age range where birthrates are currently declining.

Where this is an issue is that while men might say they want children, they don't seem to want them any time soon. For example, 34 percent of single childless men age 25 to 34 who want children want to wait at least five years before becoming a father. Sixty-one percent of men a decade older plan to wait two to five years, and a further 19 percent would like to wait more than five years—into their 50s—before fatherhood.

Despite the popular narrative that men can have children at any age, very few women in their thirties are looking for older men to marry and, on average, women want husbands who are only slightly older than themselves (about 3.5 years). Plus, men consistently overestimate how easy it will be to have children when they are older, and underestimate how effective medical interventions are at overcoming the relevant problems. The hard truth is that many of these men who are delaying will never have children.

The decline in U.S. births is not the social crisis that some would have us believe. The U.S. is not Japan, and we are not spiraling towards a childless future. The U.S. has simply become more like its comparator countries in terms of births—those that have been had low birthrates for an entire generation of women.

What has been accomplished in terms of falling teen birthrates should only be celebrated. As for the rest, I feel confident that childless adults will create their own social networks to fill any void that might be left by not having had families of their own.

Dr. Marina Adshade is a faculty member at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.