As COVID-19 cases continue declining in many states, new threats are emerging: Alongside growing unemployment rates and an increase in depression, births are declining. According to provisional figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, births in America are down to their lowest number in 35 years.
Nearly 4 million babies were born in the U.S. last year, but that was still a 1 percent birth decrease and 2 percent fertility decrease from 2017. Birth rate decline has historically been linked to economic crises, and this pandemic, which looms larger than the 2008 recession, could eventually be an even bigger threat to Americans’ economic status, happiness, and more.
The Numbers Don’t Look Good
In some ways, this isn’t news. It’s just confirmation of what we’ve already been learning the past few years: Overall, millennials are the age group most likely to have babies, but they’re not. Birth rates fell or held steady for women of all ages except those in their early 40s, which is understandable, as that’s when fertility begins to decline. Teenagers are having fewer babies, with their birthrate having fallen 73 percent since 1991.
Unfortunately, women of childbearing age aren’t having nearly as many kids as they used to, if they are at all.
The Wall Street Journal reported the total fertility rate — “a snapshot of the average number of babies a woman would have over her lifetime” — has dropped to 1.7, and experts say 2.1 is the number needed to replace the population, immigration not considered. If, for no other reason than to have a thriving population, people should support procreation.
Why Aren’t Women Having as Many Babies?
Economists believe millennials “have been slower to form families than previous generations” because they are less financially secure. Experts have also chalked up the fertility decline to millennials having far more options in their adult lives, such as travel, career, and even how to spend their money. Think about it: In your parents’ day, they couldn’t buy an iPhone 11 if they wanted to. Life was simpler then. You grew up, got married, had kids, retired.
Reading statistics about millennials, spending habits, and family choices made me wonder which came first. Could they not afford a baby, so they didn’t have one? Or did they have ample resources they chose to spend elsewhere?
Not to knock my own generation — born in 1982, I am just barely a millennial — but I’m not sure I buy the “We aren’t financially viable so we aren’t having a baby yet” excuse. According to this 2019 Forbes article, millennials have some unusual spending habits when you compare them to previous generations:
Millennials spend more on comforts and conveniences:
- 60% of millennials spend more than $4 on a single coffee
- 70% of millennials will spend a little extra to eat at the hip restaurants in town
- 69% of millennials buy clothes for reasons beyond basic necessity
- Over 50% of millennials spend money on taxis and Ubers while only 29% of Gen X and 15% of Boomers do the same
Millennials spend more per year on:
- Their cellphone as nearly all own a smartphone and comprise the highest usage as well
- Hobbies, electronics, and clothing
I’m not saying millennials shouldn’t have nice things, but perhaps rather than $5 daily coffees, fancy restaurant brunches, and the newest iPhone, millennials could put some resources aside for something that lasts longer than a mimosa hangover or an Anthropologie shirt.
Now of course, if money isn’t the reason millennials aren’t having babies, it’s a deeper issue. Maybe they’re selfish. Maybe they just don’t want them. Maybe they don’t realize why they should have a baby.
When the New York Times flat-out asked millennials why they don’t want babies, guess what they said? “Wanting more leisure time and personal freedom; not having a partner yet; not being able to afford child-care costs — these were the top reasons young adults gave for not wanting or [not] being sure they wanted children.”
The article also hinted at another fertility killer: an increase in gender equality. “There are no high-fertility countries that are gender equal,” said sociologist Philip Cohen.
Babies Are a Boon for Women, Marriages, and Society
To the women who think there are better things to do in life than have kids, I submit that babies are a boon for men, women, society, and the economy. Babies are often the glue holding families together, an indicator of economic health, and a necessity to keep society thriving.
Having a baby is expensive — more than it should be. We need to work to reduce these costs with effective policy measures. W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, has some ideas about how to help America’s fertility trends increase: End marriage penalties and expand the child tax credit. He also suggests strengthening career and technical education and subsidizing lower-income work. Some combination of these efforts would reduce the financial burden couples face when having a baby.
Even if women can afford babies, they still won’t have children if they don’t actually want them. On this, no expert can change a couple’s mind.
But here’s one last effort at fertility persuasion. Of course, you have more leisure time or personal freedom if you don’t have a baby — probably more money too. But believe it or not, there’s something better than a grande Starbucks Frappuccino, an iPhone, or an afternoon reading a good book.
It’s the cooing sound a baby makes when you rock them to sleep. It’s the “I’ll do it myself” a 4-year-old declares when they’ve learned how to button their pants. It’s the “Mom, you’re the greatest” cards your 10-year-old slips into your computer bag before a work trip. It’s the “Mom, who do you think should win this election?” from your teenager who just discovered civics. How can you put a value on raising a child?
You could always have more in your savings before having a baby. You could have a bigger house or a more secure job. Or you could earn that Ph.D. or could go to Tahiti with your spouse. But some things you don’t get back in life, and the most precious is time.
In the time you’ve spent worrying if you’re totally financially ready or setting up yet another expensive brunch, you could be snuggling a tiny human who provides infinite and nearly indescribable blessings to the parents who love her.