Storks Don't Take Orders From the State
Falling birthrates, pro-natalist policies, and the limits of population control
On the left and the right, in Europe and the United States, a consensus is growing: People aren't having enough kids—not enough to support the welfare state, not enough to preserve the culture, not enough to keep advanced economies young, thriving, and entrepreneurial.
The last time the U.S. was at replacement level fertility (the number of kids the average woman must have to stave off population decline, without immigration) was 2007. Replacement level fertility is roughly 2.1 kids per woman. Since then, America's total fertility rate dropped to 1.66. This, in turn, led to a lot of unanswered questions about the fate of federal entitlement programs, innovation, education, politics, and culture in an aging country.
To many, the solution is obvious: Americans should have more children. Yet pro-natalist policies have a weak track record in every country where they've been tried. They're incredibly expensive, they produce few or no gains in fertility, and they can lead to a disturbingly authoritarian form of governance where individual choices about family formation are deprioritized and women are pressured to have babies for the national good. Efforts to control birthrates at the population level inevitably end with efforts to control women at the individual level. Meanwhile, birthrates have declined in tandem with several social upsides as well: better education, greater wealth, longer life spans, and more freedom for women.
The U.S. and other developed countries falling below replacement level fertility needn't simply accept a choice between drastic population decline and despair or a forced-birth regime. But responding to demographic shifts will require both creativity and humility about the limits of public policy to influence birthrates. Fertility, and all the individual choice it entails, may be too big for even the most powerful governments to control.
What Won't Work
Falling birthrates aren't a new phenomenon. America's overall fertility rate has been falling for more than two centuries. There have been periods of rebound as well, both in the middle of the 20th century and from about 1990 through 2007. But since then, America's fertility rate dropped rapidly below replacement levels. The first full year after COVID-19 came to the U.S. bucked the trend—but only slightly.
Nor is the United States alone. In countries with a diverse array of cultures, political systems, values, geographic locations, and degrees of homogeneity, fertility rates are way down. Today, fewer than half the world's countries—largely in Africa and the Middle East—have fertility rates more than a few points above replacement fertility, with many falling far short.
Declining national birthrates pose real challenges. First and foremost, a country with low birthrates will soon face an aging population. While a country with more old people than young may arguably be wiser, it's also less productive, less innovative, and less physically fit. That could mean labor shortages, especially in manual labor and fields related to caring for all those old folks. It will definitely strain pension systems and public resources if the tax base shrinks as expenditures on old-age entitlement programs keep rising. A shrinking tax base also means higher taxes, less money for public services, or both. And the effects of an aging population could reverberate throughout the economy. Colleges and universities will have fewer students. We'll need fewer teachers and more home health aides. Our health care systems and our manufacturers may need to shift gears.
Across the world, efforts to address these issues have focused almost entirely on attempts to reverse the underlying trend. Countries from Russia to Japan to Italy have tried an array of measures—from pressure campaigns to subsidized child care to giving people days off work for making babies—to raise national birthrates. Yet fertility rates remain stable or continue to fall. Over and over again, officials have demonstrated that government-led efforts to induce higher fertility produce weak results at best, and frequently fail entirely, often at high public cost.
South Korea spent more than $200 billion subsidizing child care and parental leave over the past 16 years, President Yoon Suk Yeol said last fall. Yet the fertility rate fell from 1.1 in 2006 to 0.81 in 2021.
The Japanese government almost quadrupled spending on families between 1990 and 2015, expanding child care provisions, paid family leave, parental tax credits, and more. The fertility rate went from 1.54 in 1990 to 1.3 in 2005 before rebounding slightly (1.4 in 2015) and then falling back to around 1.3.
And then there's Singapore, which offers $8,000 for a first or second baby and $10,000 for every child thereafter—up from $6,000 and $8,000 back in 2014. The authorities have also tried offering tax rebates, guaranteeing 16 weeks of government-paid maternity leave for married mothers, giving housing subsidies to parents, matching Child Development Account savings up to thousands of dollars, and other schemes. None of this has stanched Singapore's plunging fertility rate. In 1990, it was 1.83. In recent years, it has hovered between 1.1 and 1.2.
Even if financial constraints are depressing fertility at the margins, government bribes don't seem to make a big difference. "If someone offers you $500 or $5,000—I mean, raising a child costs way more than that," says Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College. "So it's a pretty tough sell, and it's not like we don't have experience with those sorts of policies both in this country and abroad."
Research on "pro-natalist policies designed to facilitate work and childbearing is mixed, but generally does not find evidence of sizable fertility effects," Levine and the University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney write in a recent paper for the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, "The Causes and Consequences of Declining US Fertility." For example, "policy reforms in Norway in the late 1980s and early 1990s that substantially expanded paid maternity leave had no discernible effect on fertility rates." Meanwhile, "the lengthening of paid parental leave in Sweden led many women to have their subsequent child before the end of the parental leave, fueling a temporary baby boom, that was subsequently offset by a baby bust." Similarly, research from Spain and Alaska has found that cash schemes for parents could change the timing of births but not the total number of births.
A 2021 study for Population and Development Review suggests some positive effects from various pro-natal policies, but these effects were small, often fleeting, and dependent on context. It also notes that "studies that find no effect on fertility are more likely to remain unpublished," and that this publication bias may contribute to an "overestimation of the importance of policy for fertility."
The amount of money required to trigger even these small effects is enormous. In "The Economic Consequences of Family Policies," published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2017, researchers found "one extra percentage point of GDP spending" on early childhood education and child care programs was "associated with 0.2 extra children per woman." In the U.S., where the 2022 GDP was $25.46 trillion, that would mean spending more than $250 billion.*
Americans often suggest our low birthrates may stem from a lack of government benefits for parents and children. But in the social democracies of Europe, where government-managed health care and mandated parental leave are the norm, fertility rates are no higher than in the United States. In many cases, they're lower. The 2020 fertility rate in the U.K. was 1.6. In Germany it was 1.5. Finland hit 1.4. Denmark and Sweden were both at 1.7.
Since 2010, total fertility rates "have declined throughout the Nordic countries, despite little change in family policies," according to a team of Oslo-based researchers in a 2021 paper for Population and Development Review. Meanwhile, "in Anglo-Saxon countries, recuperation happened despite relatively low public support to families."
Clearly, socialized health care and child care aren't a panacea for falling fertility rates. But they are a recipe for further overwhelming our soon-to-be-shrinking working-age population with taxes.
Other evidence casts doubt on economic explanations for people having fewer kids.
In a 2023 survey by the Pew Research Center, low-income parents were more likely to say that parenting was enjoyable or rewarding most of the time. This maps with the ample anecdotal data out there suggesting that the middle and upper classes feel more parenting anxiety. To the extent that financial concerns keep fertility low among the latter, they're focused on elite luxuries such as tuition for private schools and top-tier colleges—concerns that pro-natalist policies are unlikely to address.
Some blame declining fertility on men's lack of a strong breadwinner status, and suggest we focus on jobs programs or increasing educational opportunities for young men. But when Scott Winship, the director of the Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility at the American Enterprise Institute, looked at the "marriageability" of today's young men—as represented by their ability to exceed what a typical sole breadwinner married dad aged 25–29 made in 1979—he found that the share of young men today who are "marriageable" is at or near peak levels. And marriageability is up, especially for black men, if we define it by educational attainment.
"Centering changes in marriage, fertility, and female workforce participation highlights the role of choices in explaining family change," Winship wrote at The Dispatch. "Those choices have reflected affluence, not economic distress."
The fact that fertility rates started their recent slide in 2007 has led many to blame the recession. But while the recession was undoubtedly associated with some drop off—"recessions routinely lead to fewer births for perfectly reasonable reasons"—it can't explain the sustained effect, says Levine. "The decline…was probably larger than you might have expected just because of the recession, and it certainly didn't abate when the recession ended."
Can We Culture Shock Our Way to More Babies?
On the right, one preferred hypothesis blames low fertility on modernity's ravage: sexual permissiveness, the degradation of marriage, and feminists telling women they have callings other than motherhood. On the left, there are frequent complaints about unrealistic expectations for parents and especially mothers, who still do more housework and child care than men while also working jobs that are viewed as demanding more than in eras past.
Pew's 2023 survey did find two-thirds of parents saying raising kids is harder than they expected it to be, and a third of mothers saying it's a lot harder. Burnout almost certainly explains why some people decide to stop at one or two kids.
Meanwhile, modern parenting styles may require more commitment. The average mom in 2012 spent almost twice as much time on child care as the average mother in 1965, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The amount of time dads spent on child care nearly quadrupled in that time. (For both, college education was linked to more child care time.)
And "a rising share of women of childbearing age are unmarried—from 58 percent in 2008 to 63 percent in 2018," according to Levine and Kearney's Aspen paper. Unmarried women tend to have fewer babies than their married counterparts (yes, even today), so "the decline in marriage rates leads to a lower fertility rate overall."
Levine and Kearney also note that "the median age at first marriage has meanwhile risen continuously over the past 50 years, from 22.0 in 1980 to 25.6 in 2007 to 28.1 in 2020." This, too, "contributes to greater numbers of unmarried women among those of childbearing age, and consequently lower birthrates."
With cultural as with economic explanations, pro-natalists are optimistic about the government's capability to intervene. But to attempt a cure via top-down controls would be worse than the disease; nations shouldn't increase birthrates at the expense of individual choice in relationships. And it's hard to imagine how governments could change expectations about parenting.
Nor is it easy to interpret all that heavier parental investment. Are people having fewer kids because each kid is more work? Or are they investing more time and resources into each kid because they have fewer of them? Is more child care time a burden, or is it a choice made possible when technology allows other household tasks to take less time?
There's another reason to doubt the anti-modernity arguments: the wide range of places experiencing low fertility. Hungary is currently under the rule of Viktor Orbán, one of the staunchest social conservatives atop any Western democracy. It is hardly a bastion of liberal wokeness. Yet its fertility rate is on par with America's. France is known for the opposite of helicopter parenting, but its 2020 fertility rate was just 1.8.
There is even some data challenging the idea that the increase in working women is the main cause of lower fertility (and, in turn, that enabling more mothers to stay at home could reverse the trend). The percentage of U.S. women in the work force climbed from 37.7 percent in 1960 to 51.5 percent in 1980, a time period during which the fertility rate fell from 3.7 to 1.8. Case closed, right? Maybe not. The female work force participation rate reached 60.2 percent in 2000. Yet as more American women went to work in the 1980s and '90s, the fertility rate partially rebounded, reaching 2.1 in 2000 instead of plummeting further. Then, as female work force participation started falling again this century, hitting 57.4 percent in 2019, fertility rates fell dramatically.
Around the world, too, the link between more women working and fewer women having babies isn't so straightforward. In a 2000 paper for the Annual Review of Sociology, sociologists Karin Brewster and Ronald Rindfuss looked at women's labor force participation and fertility rates in 21 industrialized countries from 1965 through 1996. Female labor force participation rose in all countries. But the magnitude of this rise in each country did not match neatly to the size of the fertility dips.
Denmark and Iceland had the highest female labor force participation rates (74.1 and 80, respectively) in 1996, yet they maintained higher fertility rates (1.8 and 2) than countries with fewer working women. Female work force participation remained relatively low in Greece (45.9 percent), Italy (43.2), and Spain (46.2), yet these countries had the lowest fertility rates (1.3 for Greece, 1.2 for Italy and Spain). Ireland's female work force rate was also on the lower end (49.4 percent), yet it saw the steepest fertility rate drop (down from 4 to 1.9).
While education is associated with later childbearing (and later childbearing with having fewer kids overall), highly educated women now are more likely to have children than highly educated women were a few generations back. "As of 2014, 82% of women at the end of their childbearing years with a bachelor's degree were mothers, compared with 76% of their counterparts in 1994," Pew reported in 2018. For women in their early 40s with master's degrees, the share with at least one child rose from 71 to 79 percent. For those with a Ph.D. or professional degree, it leaped from 65 to 80 percent.
If anything, countries with developed economies have made education and careers more compatible with having children than for generations of women past.
In certain quarters, the stereotype of the selfishly childless urban professional woman remains the villain of the declining fertility story. But in 2021, the U.S. was essentially on par with historic trends for childlessness, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.
In the late '80s, the percentage of women ages 40 to 44 in the U.S. who had never had any children was around 15 percent, according to data from Pew Research. Although that figure rose to 20 percent by 2006, by 2015 it was back down to 15 percent. Clearly, childlessness isn't driving the decline. Rather, women who are mothers are having fewer kids than in the past. Since 1976, the percentage of U.S. families with four or more children has shrunk dramatically (from 40 percent in 1976 to 14 percent in 2014), while the percentage of mothers with only one or two children saw a steep rise.
Shifting expectations so that more women can be stay-at-home moms, or so that more couples will split childrearing equally, might help influence some small percentage of fertility decisions. All sorts of minor changes might make some small impact.
We saw a slight uptick of births during the COVID-19 pandemic, which many have attributed to more telecommuting and workplace flexibility. Perhaps remote work could boost birthrates. Then again, the COVID baby boomlet could also just be a matter of people slightly shifting the timing of their pregnancies.
Small cultural changes like these might make parenting, and deciding to have more children, easier for some subset of the population. That's great, but such adjustments are unlikely to significantly impact reproductive decisions at scale or in the long term.
The Mystery of Individual Choice
Ultimately, the massive post-recession drop in births doesn't lend itself to easy or politically convenient explanations. There are "a lot of plausible hypotheses," Levine says: rising child care costs, rising home prices, greater economic opportunities for women, greater access to contraception, increasing student loan debt. But the evidence isn't there for any of those theories. In the U.S., they fall apart when you compare states. "In the states where those factors are rising more, are birthrates falling more?" asks Levine. "The answer to that is no." None of those hypotheses "are consistent with that cross-state variation."
Levine thinks we've been looking at this the wrong way. Instead of trying to pinpoint something that happened in 2007 or sometime during this recent decline, we should be looking further back.
"Perhaps it's not about something that changed in the world at a particular point in time, but…the women who are going through their childbearing years over time are changing their behaviors," he says. For "more recent birth cohorts of women, their entire childbearing pattern is different," which could reflect "a sense of shifting priorities among women and their families."
In 2007, millennial women were entering their mid-20s—peak childbearing years by late-20th-century standards. But instead of following in female forebears' footsteps and having a first child around age 24 or 25, the women of this cohort waited. By 2014, the average age of first-time U.S. mothers was 26.3. Meanwhile, the median age of U.S. mothers, not just first-time mothers, went from 27 in 1990 to 30 in 2019. Clearly, young women today are starting families later in life than their predecessors did.
Initially, it seemed possible that this was merely a transition period—that fertility rates would fall for a brief interval, then bounce back as women caught up at later ages with earlier cohorts. Younger women are indeed playing some catch-up as they age. While birthrates among teenagers, 20- to 24-year-olds, and 25- to 29-year-olds have all decreased over the past three decades, birthrates have increased among women ages 30 to 44.
But women in their 30s and 40s aren't having enough children to fully offset the fewer younger women having children. In 2019, America saw roughly 77 fewer births per 1,000 20-somethings than it did in 1990, with just a little over 46 additional births per 1,000 among women aged 30 and up.
That's not even taking into account the massive drop in births to teens. America's falling fertility rate owes a lot to a decrease in teen pregnancies, which declined nearly 73 percent from 1990 to 2019, and has fallen further since, especially among younger teens.
Lower fertility rates are far from being all bad news. For one thing, they're a sign of rising prosperity. Across high-income countries, the 2020 fertility rate was 1.5. For middle-income countries it was 2.2, and for low-income countries it was 4.7.
As nations become more prosperous, their residents have fewer children. Many reasons for this represent positive developments. In the U.S., people have fewer kids now in part because fewer children are dying young. Moreover, as the economy has developed away from farming, American families no longer need children as field and household labor. Lower fertility is also a product of vast increases in personal choice and opportunity, especially for women. We've loosened the cultural expectation that everyone must marry and have children. Thanks to advances in birth control, people have more control over their reproductive destinies.
In short: People are having fewer kids because they are choosing to have fewer kids.
Some people dispute this, pointing to the fact that ideal fertility doesn't match completed fertility. That is, the number of kids Americans say they want—or at least the number they say is "ideal"—doesn't match the number of kids they actually have.
Ideal family size has shrunk along with actual family size—down from an ideal of around 3.5 kids in the 1930s through 1960s to much closer to two after that. But Ohio State University sociologist Sarah Hayford found the number of children Americans say they want has changed little throughout the past few decades. Gen Xers, millennials, and the oldest Gen Zers have all said, on average, the ideal family size is 2.1 to 2.2 children.
Some look at the discrepancy between these numbers and actual fertility rates and see women's desires being thwarted. But there's another possibility: Priorities change with age and experience. "One of the things we see is that when people are 20, the number of children they plan or the number of children they want is pretty close to two on average in the United States," says Hayford. "That number declines as people get older."
Younger women may romanticize a big family but find that reality changes their calculations, for any number of reasons. (It's also important to note that some surveys about fertility ask about personal wants or plans, while some ask about the "ideal" family size. There's a distinction between "an ideal for a generic person in the world versus my personal ideal for me versus my plan," Hayford points out.) Often these aren't stories of unfulfilled reproductive dreams; they just capture the reality that people change their minds.
And while the disparity between ideal and actual family size looms large in U.S. discourse, this gap also exists in other wealthy nations—including many European countries with expensive benefits programs. So public policy isn't likely to make a difference here, either.
Keep Calm and Start Adapting
So what can be done to address the problems associated with falling birthrates?
One answer is immigration. It might not lead to more American-born babies—though foreign-born women do tend to have more children here than native-born Americans do—but it does provide new residents who can help stave off population decline.
The U.S. attracts immigrants from all over the world, and, since the 1980s, especially from Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. But many of the countries to the south, including Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, are experiencing significant fertility rate declines too. In a few decades, there may be fewer people looking to get out of these countries because there will be fewer people in them. Migration from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa could fill the gap, but those areas, too, are expected to see some declining fertility in coming years.
Even if working-age people from these locales want to come here, however, U.S. politics may make it difficult. "The opportunities for lawful migration of Africans are extremely constrained" in the U.S., George Mason University economist Michael Clemens told NPR in January. Considering what a divisive issue immigration is these days, loosening immigration restrictions may be almost as tough as convincing people to have more babies. Still, it's a place to start, and one with a much higher chance of success than your average pro-natalist policy.
A second answer is technology. Over the past few decades, the number of American babies conceived through in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproduction technologies has skyrocketed. To the extent these procedures continue to improve and the costs continue to come down, we might see even more couples who desperately want kids but are struggling to have them find a way.
Egg freezing is another technology that's still prohibitively expensive for most people. But should prices fall and the procedure become more accessible, it could help women who want kids later in life ensure they'll be able to have them.
Then there are the more futuristic visions. Artificial wombs, which could aid with gestation or save the lives of preterm babies. Embryos derived from skin cells. Drugs that help women create new eggs. Eggs created in a lab from ovarian tissues. Sci-fi scenarios aren't likely to make the childless-by-choice suddenly want babies, and we don't have these options yet. But we could have them soon, giving new options to people with fertility struggles and to women for whom pregnancy has proved too risky an option.
We could also start treating population decline more like an opportunity than a crisis.
Stuart Gietel-Basten, a demographer at Khalifa University, believes we should start focusing on the problems associated with population decline rather than staving off the decline itself by trying to increase birthrates.
With fertility rates having fallen for decades already and the existing old living longer, many of those problems are heading our way no matter what. Even if a huge baby boom started tomorrow, it wouldn't fix that.
"Babies don't work, right?" says Gietel-Basten. "They don't pay tax as well. And also babies born today are…not going to enter the labor force until the mid-2040s, by which time the ships that we're worried about have long sailed. The pensions will be beyond salvation and the labor force that these new babies are going to be going into will look completely different to how it is today."
Instead of focusing on fertility rates, Gietel-Basten thinks we should ask ourselves, "What is the actual thing that you're worried about? So if you're worried about the sustainability of the pension system, for example, then you fix the pension system….If it's about [having] a smaller workforce, what can you do to make that workforce more productive?"
In the U.S., addressing Social Security and Medicare shortfalls will soon become necessary regardless of demographic changes. We should also be readying our health care infrastructure and labor force to handle an aging population, and removing regulatory barriers to businesses and technologies that cater to older adults.
None of this is simple. Gietel-Basten thinks that's one reason politicians prefer to focus on fertility. "If you're a politician, you can either say, 'Oh, I'll do all of those things'—most of which are going to be pretty unpopular—or we just have more babies."
In practice, "just have more babies" isn't easy, either, but it has a narrative simplicity that's easy to message and, for conservatives, complements other longstanding priorities or values. You can see why it resonates. It just won't work.
Panic makes bad policy. It also forgets the simple truth that the future isn't set. Trendlines can change, often for unexpected reasons.
Remember the 20th century freakout about population growth? It prompted China to institute its one-child policy. While other countries weren't quite as drastic as that, there was a ton of political and cultural hand wringing about the catastrophes we were allegedly facing. Then the growth slowed, not because of any central planning efforts but through forces that no one predicted.
"The 20th century, demographically, was wild," says Gietel-Basten. "The demographic change, between 1900 and the year 2000, all around the world—it had never happened before, and it will never, never, never, ever happen again. And yet…the big crises of the 20th century were not because of demographic change."
Human beings, it turns out, aren't great at predicting mass social shifts. We've been surprised by demographic trends before, and we just might be again. Sometimes society changes in unexpected ways, spurred by developments technological, biological, social, cultural, or all of the above.
Whatever happens, we should accept that we are limited in our ability to control human behavior. What we can actually do is adapt our practices to accommodate whatever happens.
"If you want to be hyper positive about this, [demographic changes] can become a stimulus for change," suggests Gietel-Basten. "It forces innovation, it forces countries to change and forces society to adapt."
Making hard moves to address low fertility and an aging population will be easier once we accept that those moves are necessary. "Get people to have a lot more babies" is not possible, and it may not even be desirable. Let's take that off the table for now. If technology or unexpected social forces somehow produce a fertility rate reversal, it will be a bonus, but it won't be our only lifeline.
*CORRECTION: The original version of this piece misstated the projected increase in fertility per percent of GDP in the U.S.