The number of babies born in the United States has been decreasing for six straight years, giving rise to many alarmist headlines and widespread hand-wringing over an impending population implosion. Elon Musk has called it “potentially the greatest risk to the future of civilization” while a recent BBC headline warned of a “‘jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born.”
The statistics are stunning. In April, the Census Bureau reported the slowest population growth rate in the United States since the 1930s. In May, a federal report revealed that U.S. fertility rates fell by 4 percent in 2020—the largest single-year decrease in almost half a century. In considering the numbers, even sober-minded media observers wondered: As the workforce contracts and the population ages, will Social Security survive? Will a shrinking U.S. population mean diminished American influence on world affairs?
Many demographers say these concerns are overblown. For starters, the yearly trends can be deceiving. “The total fertility rate is a snapshot in time,” says Alison Gemmill, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who earned her Ph.D. from Berkeley in 2017. She explains that, because women are fertile for many years, annual birth rates can be misleading. People may simply be delaying childbearing not swearing it off for good.
Also, given the pandemic, the steep decline in births in 2020 was to be expected. If past trends are an indication, a post-pandemic boom may also be on the horizon. According to Ronald Lee, UC Berkeley demographer and professor emeritus of economics, crisis-driven fertility declines are usually followed by an upswing, where birth rates surpass the normal levels. And then, says Lee, “a year or so later, it comes down again, a little bit below normal. That’s the pattern that’s observed over centuries.”
“Compared to basically any developed country, we do almost nothing to make it easy to have a kid.”
Even if population declines do persist, it’s not necessarily cause for concern, says Lee, who is also the Director of the Center on the Economics and Demography of Aging at Berkeley. He stresses that our aging population, for example, is partly due to an increase in lifespans. “We’re living in better health much longer, much more vigorously.” As such, he foresees people working later in life, lessening concerns about workforce contraction.
Lee is not losing sleep over social security funding either. Compared to other affluent countries, he says, the United States has a low proportion of elderly who receive public support, most relying instead on accumulated assets, such as savings and family wealth.
Population aging and decline does affect Gross Domestic Product, the monetary value of all products made in a country, but Lee questions the validity of that yardstick as well. “I think we shouldn’t be focused on GDP anyway, we should be focused on some measure that’s concerned with individual well being.”
Rather than panicking about our slowly shrinking, aging population, Lee is concerned about “institutional inertia, and cultural inertia, and not adjusting our values and our institutions and our public policies quickly enough.” In the long run, he hopes to see changes in how American workers are taxed and how education is funded to adjust to an aging population.
According to Gemmill, population decline reflects many positive social trends, including the increase in female participation in the labor force and improved access to contraception. “It’s not all doom and gloom,” says Gemmill, who notes “huge declines in unintended pregnancy and huge declines in teen pregnancy.”
At the same time, she observes, Americans are having fewer kids than they want to. “The ideal number of children people say they want is now three. And it used to be two.”
The lack of parental support may be a key determinant in that. “Compared to basically any developed country, we do almost nothing to make it easy to have a kid,” said Lesslie Root, a postdoctoral scholar in the UC Berkeley Department of Demography. “We don’t have parental leave at the national level, we don’t have universal daycare, and I think all of those things need to feature very prominently in conversations about why the birth rate is falling.”
Finally, it’s worth remembering that, not so long ago, panic about population size had to do with expansion, not decline. The Population Bomb, the bestselling book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich caused global alarm, warning as it did of everything from resource depletion to worldwide famine and societal collapse. While many of the book’s concerns were well-founded, many critics took exception to what they saw as the book’s eugenic overtones. The Erhlichs’ most dire predictions have not come to pass.
“It is a double-edged sword,” says Root,“People are always worried that our population growth is too slow or too fast.”
Meanwhile, the world population has more than doubled since The Population Bomb appeared in 1968, to nearly 8 billion today. Over the same time period, U.S. population has grown from around 200 million to nearly 335 million.
Given the big picture, Lee cautions us not to overreact to yearly population figures. “It’s not like anything is happening suddenly,” he says. “It would be best not to pay too much attention to these little ripples and focus on what we can figure out.”