Where Are the Babies?

Typically, people have fewer babies during tough economic times and then start having more again when things get better, but that’s not happening in the United States as we recover from the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Last year, the fertility rate among American women fell to its lowest level in the past three decades. It went down to just 60.2 births for every thousand women between the ages of 15 and 44. That’s 3 percent lower than the 2016 rate.
Almost a decade into the economic expansion that’s followed the recession, unemployment is down to about 4 percent, which should mean that everybody’s gung-ho to start families. Why aren’t they having babies?
Based simply on the economy, the answer could be that young families still can’t afford it. Another thing that’s supposed to happen when unemployment rates are historically low is that wages rise, but—surprise surprise—that hasn’t proved out during this long recovery period either. It’s quite possible that the jobs young potential parents have don’t pay enough for them to feel secure.
What’s more, the share of men in their 20s with jobs is still below where it was at the end of 2007. Some of them aren’t being counted in official unemployment numbers because they’re in school or they aren’t actively job-hunting, but the fact remains that only 68 percent of men age 20 to 24, and 84 percent of men age 25 to 29, have jobs. Both figures are about 2 percentage points lower than the numbers in December 2007. Fertility rates have traditionally been closely aligned with the employment status of husbands.
Aside from the possibility that the economy just doesn’t feel as rosy to the majority of the population as it looks in Department of Labor data, there’s the question of how young women are supposed to manage having babies while they work at low-wage jobs without health insurance, paid maternity leave, or even predictable hours. Not to mention child care, which can be more expensive than college tuition. It’s no surprise that more of them are making the choice to wait until they’ve established themselves in a career before they risk the financial burdens and potential workplace discrimination that being pregnant or caring for kids brings.
The low fertility rate isn’t a bad thing in and of itself—in the United States, we still have enough young people and kids entering the country as immigrants to keep our population levels fairly steady, so despite the falling fertility rate we’re not facing the kind of challenges that Japan is dealing with, where elderly adults outweigh the number of working citizens.
There’s also unequivocally good news in the report: The birthrate among American teenagers has fallen dramatically, by 55 percent since 2007. And the birthrate among women ages 40 to 44 has continued slowly rising (it’s the only group with an uptick this year). While the long-term implications for the population remain to be seen, the numbers definitely show that families are making intentional choices about when to have kids.
As more women gain power at work and in public office (particularly during the 2018 midterms!), we’re likely to see better policies for supporting young families, and then maybe more babies again.