Recessions are contraceptive, and so it turns out are pandemics — uncertainty breeds restraint. The CDC’s birth data for 2020 reveals a 4% overall decline in births, even though most of those born in 2020 were conceived in or before early March. At 55.8 births per 1000 women aged 15-44, that’s another record low. Only the births in December fully reflect pandemic-decision making. While we don’t have break outs by month in the national report, data for December 2020 from California shows a 10% decline from 2019, and Florida data shows a 7% fall. Prior to 2020, rates had been falling steadily nationally, but at lower rates – roughly 1.4% per year for the last 10 years.* (Broken out by race/ethnicity, the 4% overall decline includes 4% declines for both nonHispanic Black and nonHispanic White women, a 3% decline for Hispanic women, and an 8% decline for nonHispanic Asian women. Births to trans fathers are included in these numbers.)**

Per CDC annual Birth Data reports, as of May 2021

2021 will likely reflect continued pandemic restraint, though the big drops may not hold as the pandemic quiets down–there might be a rise in 2022 related to unmet demand. But the current birth rate declines have magnified the issues around fertility long featured in this site (see 2019, 2017, 2011, etc.), especially questions about the ripple effect of delay. The 2020 figures show a BIG 8% one year decline in births to teens 15-19, continuing an ongoing trend brought on in 2008 by the recession and magnified with the expanded use of much more reliable birth control – including LARC’s and morning after pills, as well as other factors (maybe video games?).

Between 2007 and 2020, births to teens fell an astonishing 63%!! Births to women 20-24 fell 40% in that same period. A good number of those young women will go on to have kids later, but the questions include: How much later? What are the determinants? And how does it matter?

You can see the beginnings of the ripple effect across ages in the chart above, where falls in births among younger women have been followed by some rise in births to women in their 30s and 40s. But the angles of descent and rise vary widely so far, and in 2020, even the rates among later age groups fell, though less: 15-19, -8% | 20-24, -6% |25-34, -4% |35-44, -2% |45+, unchanged (at 0.9 births /1000).

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the trend to delay is partly fueled by women having a choice on when to have kids for the first time in human history (due to access to reliable birth control and abortion and expanded education), and partly to the failures of the social support system in the US (and really, everywhere), which among other failures doesn’t supply reliable childcare, leading many women to wait until they can afford to pay for that care themselves. Some don’t want kids and feel less pressure to have them now. Add in the expansion of the out gay community, where accidental pregancies don’t happen; expanded automation in many industries, so you may not need as many workers; and expanded workforce participation by women–and you have a world of flux in workforce supply and demand.

If each age group delays kids 5-10 years longer than they would have previously, in order (as Ready documents) to do things like: finish school, establish at work, find the right mate for the long term, and see something of the world — it won’t be until roughly 2030 that we see much of a ripple-effect upswing in births among women (and men) in their late 30s and 40s, if we do. Barring the unforeseen, of course — which with climate change and all seems pretty foreseeable.

The right-wing push to deny access to birth control and abortion is at base an effort to stem the tide of this change–partly in order to expand the birth rate, and relatedly to keep women in “their place” at the low end of the pay scale and out of civic and business policy making roles. But women of all backgrounds continue to expand their roles in the polity and to transform it for the better. And later motherhood plays a key part in that transformation.

In the past month, stories about later motherhood, birth rate declines and the shifting cultural context in which the economics/ fertility linkage comes clear have been proliferating: Why American Women Everywhere Are Delaying Motherhood | Women Are Having Fewer Babies Because They Have More Choices | Hard times and falling fertility in the United States | We Owe It to the World to Slow Population Growth, for example.

Later Motherhood is coming of age, in a world fraught with growing dangers and uncertainties. A world badly in need of more thoughtful leaders to assist in finding solutions. In the current context, delayed maternity will play an important part in allowing women to move up into policy-making roles where, with new perspectives and their long experience with responsibility and caregiving, they are badly needed.

*Including one year with a less than 1% rise – 2014. (CDC)

**CDC, NVSS Vital Statistics Rapid Release, Report No. 012 (May 2021).

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