The U.S. total fertility rate has dropped to below 1.73 births per woman, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics. This record low edges out the previous U.S. fertility nadir of 1.74 births per woman back in 1976.
U.S. rates appear to be following the downward trend seen in other developed countries. The overall total fertility rate for the 28 members of the European Union is just under 1.6 births per woman; Japan is at 1.4, and Canada is 1.5.
In a 2010 study, University of Connecticut anthropologists Nicola Bulled and Richard Sosis found that fertility drops as female life expectancy increases. As global average life expectancy rose from 52.6 years in 1960 to 72.4 years today, the global total fertility rate fell by more than half, from 5 to 2.4 births per woman.
Is this a bad thing? A newly popular argument is that "late capitalism" has made it too hard to balance life and work, which is causing women to have fewer kids. In a New York Times op-ed, the writer Anna Louie Sussman blamed employers for failing to make parenting more compatible with having a career and argued that the government should intervene to make family creation easier.
So far, no developed country has succeeded in using pronatalist policies to sustain fertility above the "replacement rate" of 2.1 children per woman. Denmark's efforts to use wealth redistribution to make child-bearing more appealing raised the country's fertility rate from 1.4 births in 1983 to 1.7 now, or about where the U.S. is.
We do know, however, what policies have historically sustained 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 natalists would advocate a reversion to such conditions as a way to boost fertility.
Modernity offers people a multitude of life options that compete with the bearing and rearing of children. Evidently, the trade-offs people make are reducing fertility. As with most things, it would be nice to have it all: 2.1 children, a great job, a big house, a short commute, the perfect school district, enough time and money for our favorite entertainment, and more. In lieu of utopia, however, we have the freedom to choose. That's a good thing.