In the midst of the pandemic spring, we can now look back retrospectively on the fertility patterns of last year—five months back that seem like ages ago. The CDC reports today that in 2019, yet again, births and birth rates fell overall and among all age groups under 35. Births to teens were down another 5% from 2018–bringing the teen rate down 60% since the start of the recession in December 2007–from 41.5 births / thousand teens 15-19 back then, to a mere 16.6 currently (a record low)! The birth rate for 20-24 year olds fell 2% again this year, bringing their total decline to 37% since 2007 (record low #2). Those sharp falls are reflected in the second and third groups of columns in the chart below. Rates fell 2% for women 25-29 (another record low) , and 1% for women 30-34. Rates for women 35–39 stayed the same, but women 40-44 saw a 2% rise, and the rate for women 45+ stayed the same at 0.9 births per 1000 women 45-49.
I’ve discussed this previously as the ripple-forward pattern of delay, assuming that the younger people delaying in their teens and 20s might well have some kids later in life, and that we’d have to wait a decade or two to see whether they ended up with the current average of between one and two kids each (the 2019 total fertility rate is 1.705 kids per woman).
But the pandemic and its attendant economic crisis may well have thrown a wrench in that ripple forward. If we end up in a depression, with people going hungry and uncertainty everywhere, the likelihood seems high that birth rates will tumble further downward among women (and men) of all ages–as in the 1930s, when rates fell to the lowest levels recorded before the development of hormonal birth control in 1960.
Not to say we won’t catch up to some extent later if the economy improves for most — perhaps through a modern day WPA that builds a culture and economy of care, investing in jobs in education, health and mental health care, good food production, arts, infrastructure renewal, green energy, technology, sports, environmentalism, and positive innovation. Such investments, along with some version of universal health care and a universal basic income, could become the new financial engine—helping people thrive rather than exploiting the many and our limited global resources. That would be an exciting new generation!
Can we do it?