US fertility keeps dropping – but that’s not a reason to panic

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on May 15 that the number of births in the U.S. is down 2% – “the lowest number of births in 32 years.”

These reports were met with surprise and alarm. USA Today, for example, led with the headline “A lot of empty kindergarten rooms.”

However, this recent decline fits with global trends and isn’t unprecedented in U.S. history. As a demographer who studies fertility trends, what strikes me as anomalous is not the recent drop, but the previous high fertility “bubble.”

Unusually high rates

The U.S. maintained surprisingly high fertility rates for a long time.

After the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s, fertility in the U.S. and other wealthy countries fell during the 1970s. However, the U.S. steadily rebounded, even as rates in most other wealthy countries stayed low or fell even lower.

By 1990, there were 2.1 children per woman in the U.S., compared to 1.4 in Spain and 1.5 in Germany, for example.

This gap between the U.S. and other developed countries baffled demographers through the 1990s and early 2000s. Public policy choices couldn’t explain it. The U.S. maintained its high fertility rate even while being comparatively weak on “pro-fertility” policies like family leave and financial support for parents.

Several factors propped up the fertility rate. The U.S. had a steady flow of immigrants from higher-fertility countries. It also had a persistently high unintended pregnancy rate; a flexible labor market that allowed parents to exit and re-enter the workforce; and a strong, stable economy.

Fluctuation is normal

The recent drop in fertility brings the U.S. more in line with peer countries.

In 2018, the U.S. dropped to 1.73 children per woman. This number is well within the range of similar countries, and even remains toward the top of the pack. Only a few wealthy countries – including France, Australia and Sweden – have higher fertility rates than the U.S., and differences are small.

It’s normal for fertility rates in wealthy countries to go up and down. People tend to adjust the timing of births to take advantage of a “good” year – such as one when high state benefits are offered – or avoid a “bad” year – such as one with high economic uncertainty.

Spain’s fertility declined from the 1970s to the early 1990s, as women increasingly joined the labor market but husbands didn’t share the load at home. (Perhaps working and taking care of three kids was more than most women wanted to handle.)

In Russia, fertility fell steadily following the economic and political shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It later climbed back.