Never worn. Photo by Mon Petit Chou Photography on Unsplash

The Great Baby Bust of 2017

Fertility Is Falling Faster than You Realize

UPDATE: The response to this was greater than I could have imagined. Thanks for reading my humble corner of the internet! I got lots of responses; too many to respond to individually. As such, I’ve written a response to 4 typical critiques at this follow-up post. I respond to (1) overpopulation concerns, (2) tempo effect on measured fertility, (3) whether more immigration can fix this issue, and (4) am I ignoring the revealed preferences of women. If you have questions on those topics, read the follow-up first!

UPDATE 2: Some tates have birth data available on their websites that is more up-to-date than the CDC’s state compilations. This very limited data requires substantial margins of error in interpreting. It suggests that aggregate births probably kept falling more below trend after July 2017, but that the pattern became less uniform, with losses more concentrated and some states making slight recoveries. A full analysis will have to wait until full data is available.

UPDATE 3: Many readers have raised concerns about overpopulation. I respond to those concerns in detail here.

I regularly harp on fertility questions, raising concerns over low population growth in many fora. But I find many people have this sanguine confidence that it will all work itself out. I disagree strongly with this view, and I want to use the most up-to-date fertility data available to explain precisely why.

If you google “USA Total Fertility Rate,” you will see a graph from the World Bank, with the most recent data showing 2015 TFR of 1.84. As such, many people wrongly believe that U.S. TFR is 1.84.

I’m here to tell you that U.S. TFR is actually 1.77, and falling with alarming speed.

We have provisional-but-complete fertility data for 2016 showing a total fertility rate of about 1.82, so slightly below the 2015 level. However, since then, fertility has fallen still further. We have monthly birth data through June of 2017 which allows us to estimate total fertility over the previous 12 months. Remember, total fertility is demographically-controlled, so it is not impacted by the age composition of the population, simply showing age-controlled birth rates. Here’s what that monthly data looks like:

The black line is finalized NCHS data, the gray line is provisional data, the red line is me forecasting out for the remainder of 2017.

Guys, this is not good.

Fertility has fallen sharply over the last 6 months or so, even as the economy has picked up steam. The most plausible forecast for 2017 calendar-year total fertility is 1.77; which, by the way, I’m not the only person who thinks that; professional demographic consultancy firms independently arrive at the same conclusions.

To be clear, in 2008 and 2009, the U.S. had replacement-rate fertility. Since then, we’ve fallen to about 0.3 kids below replacement. Let me help you visualize this another way.

Imagine you have 10 female friends. In 2008 and 2009, and they all have popular female name-fad names. Here’s an example of what their fertility might look like in 2008 vs. 2017:

In 2008, your friends Emma-thru-Emily all would have had about 2 kids if their lifetime fertility followed 2008 age-specific birth rates. Harper and her husband, however, decided to go for a 3rd, because they wanted to have the best of three children and name him Lyman, named for the demographer who inspired them to do society a favor and have a third child.

But in 2017, things have changed. Emma ended up breaking up with the guy she thought she might marry because he turned out to be kind of a deadbeat, so she didn’t have that kid she hoped to have in her 20s. Olivia got a great job… which has really long hours, and she really loves the job and she loves how comfortable it has made her and her husband’s life, but there’s no way she and Bob can care for a kid right now: life is just too busy. And Harper? Well, Harper and her husband were enticed to take a few extra vacations by generous credit card rewards programs and super-low mistake fares online, so they used up their vacation time and their disposable income, and so a third kid just isn’t in the cards anymore.

The important thing to understand here is these are big changes in your friends’ lives, and they happened really fast. This is not some gradual easing into lower fertility, but a pretty speedy change.

Here’s the longer-term fertility trend:

As you can see, since 2007, we have undone 34 years of more-or-less steady fertility increases. We can visualize this more easily by looking at the rate of change in TFR over lagged 10-year periods.

We are now in our 3rd-most-rapid period of fertility decline on record, after the 1920s drop and then the post-baby-boom decline. I expect that by 2018 or 2019, the U.S. will hit it’s lowest total fertility rate ever.

Guys this is dire stuff. But I want to zoom in on 2017 and elucidate just how crazy 2017 really is. Yes, the rate of decline was sharp, but it was also broad-based. Here’s a graph of every state’s 12-month lagged general fertility rate from 2007 to 2017. This metric makes some very basic controls for demographic composition, but is not as tightly-controlled as the total fertility rate, so is still somewhat impacted by age composition.

This chart is messy, I know, and there are no labels, but the point is to see that there are lots of “down” trends in 2016 and 2017. And by the way, that highest line that declined a lot… that’s Utah.

Guys.

It’s even happening to the Mormons.

We can simplify a bit by indexing these lines to the lagged 12-month GFR of each state in Jun 2015, so only looking at the last 2 years, all indexed for the same scale.

Western states have had the steepest decline, New England states the slowest decline. This is largely because western states had the highest initial fertility, New England states the lowest. We’re seeing some extent of convergence in general fertility rates. And indeed, the standard deviation of state GFRs has fallen by 18% since 2007.

But it’s not just convergence. Here’s the percent change since 2015 for each state:

This is broad-based stuff. Connecticut eked out a small increase, but it was tied for 2nd-lowest GFR in the nation in 2015 anyways, so that’s not saying much. Meanwhile, we’re seeing precipitous declines in fertility in western states, to the tune of 2–4% per year.

But maybe you’re an internationally-minded sort of person, and are wondering how this U.S. fertility decline compares to other countries. Well, comparing 2007 to my 2017 estimate, here are other instances of severe decadal declines from the last 40 years in some other large, relatively developed economies:

As you can see, the U.S. fertility collapse is much less severe than the Russian post-Soviet fertility collapse or the Swedish collapse in the 1990s, but is on par with the Canadian collapse in the 1970s, the Japanese collapse in the 1970s, the EU collapse in the 1970s or 1980s. It is somewhat more severe than the French collapse in the 1970s and 1980s.

None of these example countries has returned to replacement-rate fertility. The closest is France, which implemented a large number of pro-natal reforms, jacked its immigration rate way higher, and, as you can see, also had vastly higher fertility in the 1960s and earlier, so had more people with what might be called “big family memories.” Sweden has had successive rounds of extremely generous pro-natal policies and has also had very high immigration: but it has not had as much success boosting fertility as France. Sweden gets temporary booms right after a policy change as families push births earlier to take advantage of policies, but then fertility regresses back to well-below-replacement levels. This is likely in part due to Sweden not having the same high-fertility cultural legacy as France.

Canada and the wider EU including France, meanwhile, have both implemented extensive pro-natal policies intended to encourage fertility… to little effect. They have had durably low fertility. Canada has much higher immigration than the U.S. so has managed to stave off serious population risk, while Europe is starting to get higher immigration, but many countries are feeling serious fiscal and social strains due to aging.

Japan and Russia, meanwhile, have extremely low fertility. Japan has implemented some pro-natal policies, but not nearly as much as Russia. Russia’s pro-natal policies are very-nearly world-leading in their generosity, and Russia’s TFR began to recover immediately upon their implementation. But alas, now solidly a decade into Russia’s increasingly more-and-more-generous pro-natal policies and fertility remains well below replacement.

All that to say, comparison to international peers suggests that recovery to replacement is not likely, even if we adopt moderate pro-natal policies. To boost fertility, we need creative and large policies, alongside significant social and cultural change.

Conclusion

I am worried about fertility in 2017. I am very concerned about fertility in 2018. I am scared of what fertility numbers will be in 2019, especially if a recession hits somewhere in that period. Our fertility decline is on par with serious, durable fertility declines in other big, developed countries, and may be extremely difficult to reverse. I have no happy ending to this blog post.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

DISCLAIMER: My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.

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