SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. birthrate is poised to decrease yet again, reaching a new record low in 2017, according to the July edition of the U.S. Fertility Forecast by Demographic Intelligence.
The decline reflects the drop in births to teens and young 20-somethings, down roughly 200,000 to 3.92 million, compared to last year. The slide would have been greater, but slow-to-wed millennials are now tying the knot at a quicker pace than in the past and starting families.
The U.S. fertility rate is below the "replacement" range. The World Resources Institute said the United States would need women to have an average of 2.1 children each to keep population numbers stable, without migration. Its current total fertility rate is 1.8.
The trend bucks predictions by the Census Bureau and others that America would experience a "baby boomlet" about now just based on the fact that there's a "bulge" in the number of women of prime child-bearing age, said Demographic Intelligence president Samuel Sturgeon. More millennials are now 25 or 26 years old than any other two-year age range, and that's prime time for having a first child.
"When it comes to total births, that (bulge) is, in my mind, what has kept the number mostly flat. Fertility rates are going down, but the size of that population has kept it from plunging," Sturgeon said. "With the peak in the number of millennials in their mid-20s, you would have expected a slight increase in births, but because of the delays, the births have not been happening."
A turnaround of sorts
For some time, increased use of contraceptives along with fewer teenagers engaging in sex have led to a decrease in teen births, but that decrease has spilled over into those in their early 20s, as well.
Sturgeon sees a "growing reluctance of younger, less-educated people to have children. What that communicates to me is that a lot of these millennials are pretty strategic. They've figured out that life's challenging, and having kids in your teens and 20s only complicates that."
Both the job market and the economy have improved greatly since the Great Recession. But "these national averages that look pretty good aren't necessarily dipping down to reach the young," he said, creating a "for them" category to economic news that has proven to be pretty sobering and critical to millennial decision-making. For example, the job market's not particularly hot for them. Student debt has become a financial burden for them.
Other things have changed, too. More than one-fourth of all births were to high school dropouts as recently as 2007. Now, dropouts account for just 15 percent of births, according to Demographic Intelligence.
"There's no downside to a decline in births to those under age 20. It means fewer children are being raised in some of the more high-risk environments, and that's a good thing. Preliminary evidence kind of suggests that more children are planned and wanted," Sturgeon said.
Being planned and wanted gives child well-being a boost, according to University of Denver research professor Scott Stanley, who co-directs the Center for Family and Marital Studies. He noted conversations nationally about why parents are more likely to break up or never really get together in the first place. "But you hardly ever hear anyone talking about, did the two people together decide that they wanted a life together or maybe wanted to raise a child together?"
Anticipating life together, being parents together, "is one of the most important variables if you buy the idea — and most people do — that kids do better when they have two committed people in their corner," Stanley said.
Wedding bells first
The demographic report highlights that millennials, many of them now heading into their 30s, are "finally ready to marry." It predicts that in 2017, the marriage rate will rise to 6.96 per 1,000 adults, compared to 6.91 in 2015. Demographic Intelligence sets the number of U.S. weddings in 2017 at 2.27 million, compared to 2.22 million in 2015 and 2.24 million in 2016.
The rate of nonmarital births has leveled out after several years of increases, primarily due to the delay in having children. "When you delay birth, it is much more likely to be a marital birth," Sturgeon said.
College-educated couples are far more apt to get married before having kids, and even they are delaying becoming parents.
"The slight uptick in fertility among college-educated people is offset by an even larger decline in the less-educated having kids," Sturgeon said.
The world is experiencing a shift that brings population replacement rates into high relief. At least 13 European Union nations now have more deaths than births, which puts economic growth at risk. Singapore has for some time tried to encourage couples of child-bearing age to have more children, offering to match parents' contributions to a savings account for children, with a higher cap for each subsequent child.
Stanley said some of the concern centers around what will happen to the elderly when there are fewer young people to support them — both as doting adult children of frail old people and also as taxpayers, since the social safety net requires financial contribution.
There's a social capital issue, too. Some families are already fragile in terms of being connected to both parents. With fewer children, an increasing number of people have fewer family connections overall, Stanley said.
The concept that it "takes a village" is a good one, but there's not a lot of evidence that a village actually shows up to help in family crisis. So even in what Stanley described as a "relatively intact, strong-bond kind of family, as parents age and need stuff, it gets difficult for one child, who may be less likely to have a partner through life than before. You can see how it's going to be an ever-increasing burden on public systems to support people as they reach those later years in life with fewer non-public social capital (options) to handle that need," not to mention fewer working-age people to fund programs.
Still, Sturgeon admits that it's hard to predict what millennials will bring the world based solely on the patterns of the past. "This is kind of evidence of a generation that's doing things differently from previous generations. What that means I don't know because the world's different. The scientist in me says let's sit back and watch what happens."