The U.S. fertility rate hit a record low in 2020 — just as it did in 2019, and 2018. Although the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have accelerated this decline, the drop has been underway for years. The total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime — now sits at 1.64 children per woman in the U.S. Not only is this the lowest rate recorded since the government began tracking these stats in the 1930s, but it’s well below the so-called “replacement-level fertility” of about 2.1.
The latter number is what social scientists and policymakers have long regarded as the rate a country should maintain to keep population numbers stable. When the fertility rate falls below replacement level, the population grows older and shrinks, which can slow economic growth and strain government budgets. Today’s babies are tomorrow’s workers and taxpayers: They’ll not only staff the hospitals and nursing homes we’ll use in old age but also sustain the economy by funding our pensions when we retire, paying the taxes that finance Social Security, Medicare, and many other government programs we’ll rely on, and buying the homes and stocks we invested in to build our savings.
But recently, some experts have questioned whether we ought to be so concerned about low fertility. “There’s nothing really magical about replacement-level fertility,” said Erich Striessnig, a professor of demography and sustainable development at the University of Vienna. There are ways to overcome the challenges of low fertility, but it’ll take an investment in the people who have been born already.
Replacement-level fertility is a convenient but unrealistic idea.
The concept of replacement-level fertility goes back to at least 1929. At the time, birth rates in the U.S. and other industrialized countries had been falling for decades, and people didn’t know why. Attempting to explain this phenomenon, the American demographer Warren Thompson theorized that as these countries industrialized, people gained access to better medicine and sanitation as well as safer drinking water, leading to a sharp drop in death rates. With more children surviving to adulthood, people eventually started having fewer kids. In the final stage of this “demographic transition,” Thompson proposed, the fertility rate would settle at just about replacement level with one baby born for every adult dying.
Thompson’s prediction was purely theoretical, but it became foundational to the field of demography. When the United Nations Population Division began projecting world population in the 1960s, its estimates were based on Thompson’s assumption that fertility rates across the world would converge to replacement level, further cementing the concept into demographic thought. This idea was attractive to politicians and policymakers since it meant they wouldn’t have to worry about populations growing or shrinking indefinitely. They could count on new generations of workers and taxpayers to keep the economy humming and government programs funded when older people stopped working.
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As it turned out, Thompson was only partially correct. Birth rates do decline as countries industrialize, but they don’t stop falling when they reach replacement level. In fact, fertility rates are now below replacement level in every post-industrial society, and it’s not clear where they’ll settle.
But just because America’s fertility rate isn’t going to return to that 2.1 number anytime soon doesn’t mean that the fabric of society is going to collapse. In fact, low fertility poses some advantages: easing ecological pressures, preventing overcrowding and reducing the infrastructure costs that come with a growing population.
Policy solutions may be able to address the falling rate.
The fabric of society will be tested, though. Low fertility poses some serious economic challenges. Already, the share of Americans 65 and older is expected to rise from about 17 percent today to 23 percent by 2060. America’s declining fertility rate threatens to accelerate this trend, and many policymakers fear the ballooning population of older adults will overburden the nation’s dwindling workforce.
But some demographers think it’s silly to compare the workforce of today with the workforce of, say, 40 years from now. The next generations of workers may constitute a smaller slice of the population, but they’ll be more educated and thus more productive and better poised to satisfy the needs of older people. In which case, some demographers argue, there’s no reason to assume that below-replacement fertility is a problem. “Future generations have broader shoulders in the sense that they’re capable of supporting more dependents,” said Striessnig. According to his calculations, the fertility rate could fall to 1.5 before the cost of aging becomes a problem.
And, of course, there are ways to encourage more adults to work. In the U.S. and many other nations, women are less likely than men to be employed. If what we need is more workers and taxpayers, plenty of women may happily rise to the occasion if employers make it worth their while.
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Taken together, these findings suggest that we could ease the problems of a low-fertility society if we’re willing to invest in children’s education and better support women in the workforce. One analysis found that if the European Union eliminated disparities in education and labor-force participation, the projected decline in the size of the labor force would be cut by more than half. Another analysis found that if EU countries matched the levels of education and labor-force participation currently observed in Sweden, the relative strength of the labor force would actually improve in many nations over the coming decades.
Some experts are skeptical, though, that having better-educated workers will be enough to overcome all the challenges of low fertility. “Educated workers are more productive than less educated workers in many jobs, but I’m not sure they are more productive as [parents] or caregivers for the elderly,” said Nancy Folbre, professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. What happens if too many educated workers want to be physicists rather than hospice workers?
Others point out that the problems of low fertility may get thornier when the overall size of the population begins to shrink. “What happens to mortgages in a country where real estate depreciates like a used car because the population is falling and we need fewer and fewer houses all the time? We’re totally unprepared for that,” said Lyman Stone, a demographer and research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank. And given enough time, said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, below-replacement fertility leads to the extinction of the human race. “Eventually, you run into a problem,” he said. “It’s not a sustainable solution.”
Since no country has had low fertility rates long enough to experience its full effects, the debate over all this remains theoretical. “It takes a while to work its way through the population,” said Murray. Even countries like Japan, where the population is already shrinking, still benefit from a growing global labor force from which to draw workers and a growing global marketplace in which to sell their wares. And countries like the U.S., Canada and Australia rely on net immigration as well — and could probably continue doing so for decades if they choose to embrace it. But birth rates are falling practically everywhere, and the global fertility rate is expected to fall below replacement level sometime between 2050 and 2100. The consequences of low fertility will be different when the whole world is experiencing it.
What we do know, however, is that the differing perspectives on this issue leave us with two broad approaches to handling the challenges of low fertility. We can encourage people to have more children by enacting policies that make parenting more attainable. Or we can invest more in the people we’ve already got — both children and their parents — so everyone becomes a productive and capable adult. The good news is that many of the policies that help with the latter approach can also help with the former: Policies that support mothers in the workplace and ensure that all children have access to a good upbringing and education — for example, paid parental leave, child allowances and expanding access to high-quality child care, early-childhood education and higher education — also ease the financial strain of parenting. So although we don’t know exactly how far the fertility rate can fall before it becomes a problem, the solutions may be more straightforward than we think.