‘Demographic earthquake’? U.S. fertility rates fall again to record-low levels

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According to the report, the total fertility rate has been below replacement level “generally” since 1971, and “consistently” since 2007 – just before the global economic crisis of the following year.

The U.S. fertility rate is actually lower than Japan’s in 1988, Wilcox noted. Japan’s fertility rate went on to drop precipitously after that year, he said, effecting a demographic decline with around a million more deaths than births in recent years.

“The question is, are we heading down the Japanese road?” Wilcox asked, pointing to Southern Europe and East Asia as other examples of regions with low birth rates.

For 2020, the general fertility rate stood at 55.8 births per 1,000 women ages 15-44, a record-low.

The overall number of births in the United States fell 4% last year to just more than 3.6 million births in 2020 – the sixth consecutive year that figure has decreased and the lowest number of births since 1979.

There might be a number of causes behind the low birth rates, Wilcox said. While demographers have warned of a possible “baby bust” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it caused, those numbers would only be revealed in the December statistics at the very end of 2020, he said.

“We would predict that 2021, this year, is going to be even more dramatic” in the declining birth rate, he said, noting that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could markedly influence the 2021 birth statistics.

Furthermore, birth rates have fallen since the 2008 economic crisis but have not rebounded as the U.S. economy bounced back from the “Great Recession,” he said, implying that causes other than the economy are also responsible for the decline in fertility rates.

“Delays in marriage” are a large driver of the decline, Wilcox said. The rise of technology impacting social life is another, he said, with fewer people socializing and dating in-person. Adults are also more invested in education and work, he said, and are less likely to view marriage and parenthood as “anchors” of adult life.

While federal policies such as paid parental leave and a generous child allowance could play a role in increasing the birth rate, Wilcox noted that Northern European countries with generous family policies are still seeing birth rates fall.

“That’s not a cure-all,” he said of federal pro-family policies, while noting that they would be “helpful.”

Among demographic subgroups, the general fertility rate in 2020 dropped 9% for non-Hispanic Asian women, and 4% for non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic Black women, according to the numbers published by the CDC on Wednesday.

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Birth rates among teenagers and young adults continued their steep declines in recent decades.

The provisional birth rate for teenagers ages 15-19 dropped by 8% in 2020, while the provisional birth rate among women ages 20-24 declined by 6% to a record-low 62.8 births per 1,000 women. The birth rate among this subgroup has dropped by 40% since 2007.

While the birth rate among women aged 40-44 had generally risen since 1985, it fell by 2% from 2019 to 2020, to 11.8 births per 1,000 women.

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