Fertility rates

U.S. Total Fertility Rate Falls to Record Low

Is "late capitalism" to blame?

|

The U.S. total fertility rate (TFR) has dropped to below 1.73 births per woman according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). This record low edges out the previous U.S. fertility nadir of 1.74 births per woman back in 1976.

The NCHS notes that the TFR for the U.S. in 2018 remained below replacement, the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself (usually defined as 2.1 births per woman). In addition, the TFR was below replacement for all race and Hispanic-origin groups in 2018, except for Pacific Islanders. Overall, the U.S. TFR has generally been below replacement since 1971.

In general, American women of all races are having children later in life. In the 1960s, the mean age for a mother's first birth was 23.3 years. The new report notes that for all ethnic groups, the mean age of mothers at first birth has been rising and has now reached a national average of 26.9 years.

U.S. fertility rates appear to be following the downward below-replacement trend seen in other developed countries. For example, the overall TFR for the 28 countries in the European Union is just under 1.6 births per woman; Japan's is at 1.4 births; Australia's is at 1.74 births, and Canada's is 1.5 births. Why are fertility rates falling around the world?

In my book, The End of Doom, I reported on how the life prospects of women shape reproductive outcomes, as analyzed in a fascinating 2010 article in Human Nature, "Examining the Relationship Between Life Expectancy, Reproduction, and Educational Attainment." In that study, University of Connecticut anthropologists Nicola Bulled and Richard Sosis divvied up 193 countries into five groups by their average life expectancies. In countries where women could expect to live to between 40 and 50 years, they bear an average of 5.5 children, while those countries with female life expectancies between 51 and 61 average 4.8 children. The big drop in fertility occurs at that point. Bulled and Sosis found that when women's life expectancy rises to between 61 and 71 years, total fertility drops to 2.5 children; between 71 and 75 years, it's 2.2 children; and over 75 years, women average 1.7 children.

As global average life expectancy rose from 52.6 years in 1960 to 72.4 years now, the global total fertility rate has fallen from 5 births per woman in 1960 to 2.4 births now. Average global life expectancy is projected to exceed 77 years by 2050. If Bulled and Sosis's insights continue to hold, global TFR should fall to around 1.7 births per woman by then. As noted in the NCHS report, U.S. TFR has been below replacement since 1971, which, as it happens, is exactly the year that average life expectancy for American women reached 75 years.

Is falling fertility a bad thing? Obviously not for those still benighted folks worried about a supposedly exploding population bomb.

However, earlier this month there was a lot of anxious handwringing about falling fertility rates in the New York Times opinion article, "The End of Babies." According to the op-ed's author, Anna Louie Sussman, the culprit responsible for falling fertility rates is "late capitalism." She doesn't mean "just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities, and absurdities—[have] become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social, and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive."

Sussman does acknowledge that declining fertility "reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living." Nevertheless, she blames employers and governments for failing to make parenting and work compatible. To her credit, Sussman begins by noting the vast array of pro-natalist policies mandated in Denmark including 12 months' paid family leave for new parents, highly subsidized daycare, and state-funded in vitro fertilization for women under 40 years of age. And yet Denmark's TFR is just 1.7 births per woman, almost exactly the same as that of the U.S.

Modernity, a.k.a, late capitalism, clearly offers people a multitude of life options that compete with the bearing and rearing of children. Evidently the trade-offs between work, travel, socializing, entertainment, sports, and parenting that people are making reduce fertility. Attempts to skew trade-offs toward more childbearing may have some effect—Denmark's fertility rate rose from 1.4  in 1983 to 1.7 births per woman now—but in no developed country so far have pro-natalist policies sustained fertility above the replacement rate.

Fun or kids?
Trade-off for kids

We do know, however, what policies do sustain high fertility rates: Low incomes, low education levels, high levels of violence, defective rule of law, extensive corruption, lack of property rights, and despotic government. I doubt that even the most ardent pro-natalists would advocate a reversion to Malthusian hell-holes as a way to boost fertility.

The upshot is that modern people considering their options are voluntarily choosing to have fewer children. Freedom of choice is a good thing.

NEXT: Support Reason While Doing Your Amazon Holiday Shopping

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Also affecting the TFR is:
    The #MeToo movement
    Incels
    MGTOW

    1. Don’t forget the gender wage gap for recent college graduates, and the NYT(?) article explaining that recent graduate women can’t find marriageable partners because they all make more money than men their own age.

      “College-Graduate Men are Broke, Make Less Than Women; Women Hardest Hit” should have been the title.

    2. up to i sAw the pAycheck sAying $7438, i hAve fAith …thAt…my cousin wAs like truley bringing home money pArttime At there lAbtop.. there moms best frend hAd beAn doing this for only About 8 months And A short time Ago cleArd the mortgAge on there mini mAnsion And bourt A brAnd new hondA. this is where i went, go to this site home tAb for more detAil…../morning6.com

  2. You know what well-governed countries do when their fertility rates are low? They allow unlimited, unrestricted immigration.

    #OpenBorders

    1. Yes, and a darned good idea it is! Because even if you are totally morally upstanding and self-responsible, and save-save-save for your retirement in your old age, when you are 90 in the old-geezer home, your gold coins will NOT feed you, nor change your bedsheets, nor can you eat or drink your gold! So… Unless robots just go utterly ballistic in their abilities soon… You will need FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS to take care of you in your old age! For lack of “properly papered” humans, we MIGHT even have to make do with… OH THE HORRORS!!!! Illegal sub-humans taking care of us in our old age!!!

      1. Who’s gonna take care of old Mexicans if all the young Mexicans are here?

        1. Their reproduction rate is higher than ours… Some (significant number of) young Mexicans will stay there. And at least some of them that come here, send portions of their earnings to relatives back home. And some of them (many of them) would just like VISIT here, to make money, then go back home. But… Since paying “coyotes” and-or crossing borders illegally in general, is SOOO dangerous, they come here and STAY instead! Which is a policy-backfire for those (not including me) who hate illegal sub-humans!

          1. Mary thinks she’s being tolerant, but is basically calling for cheap slave labour.

            1. Hitler-Satan thinks that it is looking out for Der Volk and Racial Purity, but is actually clutching DESPERATELY to ANY disguising and available illusions of “seeking the public good”, while actually seeking self-righteous Glory and Power.

              1. Appeal to Hitler: The fallback argument of loosers everywhere.

    2. Open Borders increases housing prices and decreases wages, both delaying and limiting family formation.

      It’s population replacement.

      Which, for the #HateAmericaFirst crowd, is a good thing.

    3. What do well-governed countries do when their fertility rates drop? They start subsidizing women already in the country who are having babies, This could mean additional tax incentives for each child, tax credits for day care, etc. Why should women already here and not having children due to working long hours have to pay taxes to support children of immigrants? Give the money back to them to help encourage higher fertility rates. Of course, those who oppose giving tax subsidies to US women for child rearing seem to have no problem giving money to immigrants and their children. As a conservative-leaning libertarian myself, I don’t like giving tax subsidies either – but giving them to existing tax-paying women seem like a better alternative than giving money to support immigrants and their children. This may not eliminate the need for some immigration but would certainly help.

      1. They do this already in Western Europe and Japan but does not seem to have changed things much. It is not why people are having fewer children. Not once the economy is at the point of decent prosperity.

        I think it is deeper. It goes to what people value in life.


  3. Nevertheless, she blames employers and governments for failing to make parenting and work compatible.

    Hmm…so she’s saying women never should have become anything more than homemakers? Or maybe she’s saying it’s men’s turn to stay home and raise babies?

    I honestly don’t get where she’s coming from on that point, since if both parents are working those are hours you’re definitely not at home with your kids and last I checked a nurse or oil field worker can’t (and shouldn’t) take their kids to work…

    I imagine importing immigrants is the ‘solution’ here, since as Bailey notes:


    …policies do sustain high fertility rates: Low incomes, low education levels, high levels of violence, defective rule of law, extensive corruption, lack of property rights, and despotic government. I doubt that even the most ardent pro-natalists would advocate a reversion to Malthusian hell-holes as a way to boost fertility.

    I mean…this seems like some pretty epic lack of self-awareness. In fact, our current Federal government espouses this ‘solution’ for social security…they aren’t ‘pro-natalists’ though, they’re something else entirely.

    1. Hmm…so she’s saying women never should have become anything more than homemakers? Or maybe she’s saying it’s men’s turn to stay home and raise babies?

      No, I think she’s saying governments need to make employers provide more time off and more accommodations like free day care and meal prep.

      1. And yet she even notes those types of things had literally no effect when applied in other nations. A curious position to take, for sure, and I’m not entirely certain why employers should pay you more if you have kids than if you do not. That’s essentially where that train of thought ends up.

        1. And yet she even notes those types of things had literally no effect when applied in other nations.

          That’s because they didn’t do it properly.

          I’m not entirely certain why employers should pay you more if you have kids than if you do not

          Because I, as a parent, have a right to a life that is every bit as carefree and convenient as that of a childless person.

          1. Yeah, that sounds about right.

            I just find it ever amusing that the far left has two completely contradictory beliefs: equal pay for equal work, and then suggestions like this that completely undermine their first point.

            It’s also amusing that people like her never seem to notice that the pay you receive from your employer can be spent on things like child care. I’m sure as an employees total compensation goes up it won’t ever result in less actual take home pay. *eye roll*

  4. How long have we been in “late Capitalism” now? It seems like it’s been kind of a long time . . .

    1. Last I checked, we’ve been in late capitalism since circa the Roman Empire…

      A joke, but not an inaccurate one it seems…

      1. I’m sure the inevitable collapse will happen any century now.

  5. “Sussman does acknowledge that declining fertility “reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.”

    The thing that makes something universal is its applicability cross culturally and throughout history.

    Cross culturally and throughout history, as women are better educated and given more opportunities to contribute to household income by working outside the home, they have fewer children.

    It’s great that she acknowledges these facts. This is way out there:

    “She blames employers and governments for failing to make parenting and work compatible.”

    The problem of making parenting and work compatible is so universal, it doesn’t only apply cross culturally and throughout history. It also an inter-species problem!

    Chimpanzees, antelope, bears, penguins, and wolves, as well as homo sapiens–cross culturally and throughout history–have struggled with ways to both rear children while working to provide for them at the same time. The idea that government might make this problem go away is absurd.

    Children are an attention consuming pain in the ass, especially when they’re infants. Whether you’re a mama bear trying to feed yourself and keep an eye on your cubs at the same time or a single mom trying to work on a project from home with a toddler that constantly requires attention, you’ll always have the same problem. Unless you’re planning to remove children from the home entirely, infants, especially, will always require constant attention, and there is no government solution to that problem.


    1. Unless you’re planning to remove children from the home entirely, infants, especially, will always require constant attention, and there is no government solution to that problem.

      You noted the government solution at the start of your sentence. All children should be remanded to the government for rearing. Kids are already brought up by government employees more than their parents in most cases, removal from the home seems like the next logical step. They already do that in specific cases, all you’d need is a vast expansion of CPS.

      1. You noted the government solution at the start of your sentence. All children should be remanded to the government for rearing.

        ^ This. This is also the solution to the ‘problem’ of education inequality.

        1. Everything goes so much smoother when you reduce children to cogs in a vast unaccountable bureaucratic system, after all. Any negative outcomes must be the result of dissidents and wreckers, not the pure motives of the state.

  6. all you’d need is a vast expansion of CPS.

    Pretty sure that’s been their plan all along.

  7. Better open up the borders and…oh wait we’re overpopulated and that causes global warming. Stop having children whitey!

  8. “Bulled and Sosis found that when women’s life expectancy rises to between 61 and 71 years, total fertility drops to 2.5 children; between 71 and 75 years, it’s 2.2 children; and over 75 years, women average 1.7 children….

    “We do know, however, what policies do sustain high fertility rates: Low incomes, low education levels, high levels of violence, defective rule of law, extensive corruption, lack of property rights, and despotic government.”

    I wonder what happens if you crunch the numbers and compare countries based on the number of citizens who spend substantial amounts of time on the Internet?

    I suspect the data would show correlation, and then we could simply jump to conclusions and assume causation.

  9. I ran a spreadsheet to calc what the world population would be today if the slope of the curve had not changed–thanks to The Pill and the 1972 LP platform: 10 billion, 5x the 1928 population.

    1. Is there anything at all the ’72 LP platform wasn’t responsible for in your mind you deluded old fucking fruitcake?

      Also, your genocidal psychotic imaginings aside, your only contribution to Malthusian population control is being such a repulsive piece of subhumans hit that women flee from you as if from a burning building.

  10. Absurd rent/housing costs and bad jobs, let’s see why would birth rates be at an all time low? Hmm.

    1. So why were so many kids born in the thirties during the depression?

      1. The birth rate actually took a huge hit in the 1930s and didn’t recover until the post-war baby boom. No, people didn’t stop making babies, but they definitely didn’t make as many-and those they did have often ended up in orphanages. My mom was one of them.

        1. And keep in mind that there was no hormonal birth control in the 1930s. So you not only had a huge drop, but back then it was a lot more difficult to avoid nature’s accidents.

          1. I hear one Mr. J. Smith had a modest proposal which could also serve to “avoid nature’s accidents”.

        2. So this is worse than the depression?

    2. People used to have more kids in more materially difficult times, and still do in poorer areas of the world.

  11. So it seems to me that the only way social security and medicare can remain sustainable with a low birth rate is if people kick the bucket sooner. Thus, the government has an obligation to make sure that we live the unhealthiest life possible. Time to tax gym memberships and veggies, and hand out cartons of unfiltered cigarettes to every American.

  12. How silly to equate fertility rates with birth rates. The statistic is actually looking at women (fertile) who don’t bear children. Conspicuously absent are the relatively new options of birth control and abortion.

    1. “Fertility rate” isn’t about a woman’s fertility, but about the average number of children women are having.

  13. Above replacement states, as of 2017.
    North Dakota
    South Dakota
    Nebraska
    Utah

    1. Can’t speak for Utah, but there’s almost nothing to do in those other states but each other.

  14. Oh good! No more nasty humans to exacerbate climate change! Problem solved!

  15. While Freedom of Choice is great for individuals, for society it’s pretty disastrous when you stop having children.

    And it’s made worse because modern government is basically financed as a ponzi scheme, requiring more people to pay in than get paid out.

    Obviously we should change that, but that’s the third rail of politics.

    1. Not to worry, old Ron and his buddy Kurzweil are going to live long enough to live forever, and their lives will be sustained by a never ending surplus of beaners.

  16. if birth less.. then no man power will also decrease .. in this world…. hazard perception test wa

  17. This is a factually incorrect statement, “…but in no developed country so far have pro-natalist policies sustained fertility above the replacement rate.” Israel is a full-developed member of the OCED and has a fertility rate of 3.11 which is well above replacement.

    https://data.oecd.org/pop/fertility-rates.htm

    1. Was thinking about that. One reason I believe is that the centrality of family and community is paramount in Israeli life. As a small country it is more tightly knit.

      Another is that as a relatively new country which has done well Israelis tend to be highly optimistic about the future. They rank higher in happiness than US and European countries with the exception of the Scandinavian countries.

      In a broad sense in many places around the world children are increasingly seen as not a joy but a burden and impediment to success. This is not the case in Israel at least not yet.

      Or it could be they just like making babies.

        1. Meant to say that Orthodox Jews make up a huge chunk of Israel’s population and they tend to have very large families.

          1. Agreed, Israel is likely an outlier for several reasons. No doubt your case is likely one cause, another is regions like the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Looking at data from the CIA World Factbook, which gives data for each separately, I made the following table:

            Region,Fertility,Life expectancy,Median age
            Israel,2.63,82.7,30.1
            Gaza Strip,3.97,74.4,17.4
            West Bank,3.2,75.4,20.4

            I also did it for the US, Canada, Denmark, & Japan
            US,1.87,80.1,38.2
            Canada,1.6,82,42.4
            Denmark,1.78,81,41.9
            Japan,1.42,85.5,47.7

            I’ve included median age since it seems logical to me that it would play a larger role in the fertility rate than life expectancy. I actually don’t understand why so many people use life expectancy as some great useful measure. Near as I can see median age is a much better metric for lots of statistics whether it’s making babies or violent crime.

          2. They do and about 20% of Israelis are Haredim or modern orthodox. Also Israeli Arabs are another 20% and tend to have more children. However what I saw, can’t find it now is the trend holds true for secular Israeli Jews who have children in the 3 per woman or slightly greater range. Also the birth rate for Arab Israelis is declining approaching to about the same rate as the general population.

  18. “Is “late capitalism” to blame?”

    Nope. Orange Man Bad is to blame, along with the people who aren’t having kids because climate change is going to end life on earth in 10 years.

    1. I can think of worse things than TDSers and climate change cultists not passing on their genes.

  19. Until we massively and completely revamp the entire tax system of our country and stop punishing the productive class and make it simply cost prohibitive to have kids, while subsidizing the poor to have more…

    …nothing will change.

  20. If you’re really looking to see the product of public school and university indoctrination, check out the comment section in the NYT article. Let’s just say that there are more than a few people out there who’d love to see a few billion humans disappear as soon as possible.

  21. This dose show that China’s One Child Policy not only is Authoritarian Control of People’s Lives, but also Completely Unnecessary

  22. I checked that report. South Dakota has the highest fertility rate in the nation, and the only one with an above-replacement rate. And North Dakota and Nebraska aren’t far behind. These states must be doing something right.

    PS: Utah isn’t far behind either. But their reason is more obvious.

  23. Sometimes, people aren’t just that interested in having children. And the subsidies tries in other countries just don’t seem to work, especially when targeted almost exclusively at the lowest earners.

    Take Canada, for example, which has some of the most generous child subsidies in the world ($500 per month, per child for those making less $30K or less, with a gradual phase-out until $100K of income). Which means that if you make $30K, your wife doesn’t work, and have five children, you can rack up a household income of $60K — not bad for a single-income family.

    And yet, what’s Canada’s fertility rate? Even lower than ours: 1.6 children per woman. Whaddaya gonna do!

Please to post comments