America’s fertility rate has fallen to its lowest point in history, 1.73 babies per woman, according to data just released by the Centers for Disease Control. The truth is starker still around much of the developed world, as noted by a new Institute for Family Studies report. Across Europe and Asia especially, each year brings more countries hitting their lowest fertility rates in history. In South Korea, for instance, the average woman can now expect to have less than one child.
In the face of global climate change, this worldwide birth dearth might seem okay. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York recently noted that some may even be wondering: “Is it OK to still have children?” Some experts have a different question: should we even care? Conrad Hackett, senior demographer at the Pew Research Center, recently asked this question at a forum on family issues hosted by the Brookings Institution. Why do we care if fertility is low?
In fact, we should care that fertility is falling, for at least three big reasons.
First and foremost, the reality is that fertility rates around the world, and in the United States, are lower than what women themselves say they want. About 40 percent of American women in their 40s report that they would like to have more children than they currently do. This figure is markedly larger than the approximately 20 percent of their peers who say they have more children than they would like. Such numbers are worrying because research tells us that women who “miss” their fertility ideals tend to be less happy than those who make them.
Secondly, low birth rates can also have seismic economic consequences. A growing chorus of economists have begun to argue that slow population growth makes us all poorer. Declines in childbearing often “portend ominous change in economic prospects [for countries]: major increases in public debt burdens, and slower economic growth” because they eventually lead to declines in the number of adults working, absent major immigration, as the political economists Nicholas Eberstadt and Hans Groth have noted.
This may seem counterintuitive. Most people visualize the economy as a pie, and with more people, the pie must be divided into smaller pieces. So fertility reduction should make us richer!
But this argument falls apart under a little scrutiny. It’s true that with fewer people, the pie needn’t be shared. But we all know how parties really work: if fewer people are coming, you cook less food. The economy is no different. Businesses only invest in growing markets. If the market is expected to shrink in the future due to low population growth, then businesses won’t invest. Consider how hard it is to grow a business in a shrinking state. The entire business case for investment depends on a growing market. Real estate prices in Appalachia or Detroit, places where populations are falling, aren’t helping families build wealth. Wages in Japan, where fertility has been below replacement for decades, have been even more stagnant than America’s in recent years. Debt and entitlement burdens in declining Eastern European countries are monumental. Academic research from the United States clearly shows that birth rates drive future entrepreneurship.
Thus, if population is shrinking, we can expect to see less investment and less growth. When the party gets smaller, we cook less food, and fewer people bring extra side dishes, leaving us with fewer total food options. Demographic stagnation leads to a diminished material quality of life.
Finally, as J.D. Vance wryly observed at The American Conservative’s annual gala in May, “We should care about declining fertility, not just because it’s bad for our economy, but because we think babies are good, and we think babies are good because we’re not sociopaths.” Babies can be transformative for the men and women who have them, and for the families they build and grow.
“I care about declining fertility because I’ve seen the role of fatherhood, the positive role that it can play in the lives of my friends and in my community. I’ve seen young men who are relatively driftless, but became rooted and grounded when they had children,” Vance said, adding, “And in my own life, I’ve felt the demons that come from a traumatic childhood melt away in the laughter, in the love, of my own son.”
For evidence in support of Vance’s view, one need only look to Japan. In the land of the setting sun, long-term low fertility has dealt a devastating blow to kinship ties and family life. Thanks to the very rapid fertility transition in Japan two generations ago, scores of older Japanese men and women face the prospect of lonely lives and lonelier deaths. Japanese retirees with fewer children, not to mention grandchildren, are often unvisited and cut off from the life of the young. As The New York Times reported in a harrowing account of the lonely old in Japan, “The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.”
In other words, over the next century, long-term low fertility will leave many countries with dramatically smaller families, more isolated and family-less individuals, stagnating economics, underfunded public pensions, and millions of old people dying alone and untended. Oh, and lots of women will not be able to realize their dream of having two or three children. If we are not careful, the United States could face a demographic challenge akin to that now facing much of Europe and East Asia. That is why all those empty cradles matter.
Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and an advisor at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence. W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.