Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Aliska and Nate Julian sit with their sons, Ander, left, and Morrissey, at their home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. The couple has decided to only have two children.

Utahns are marrying later, having fewer children than in the past and delaying when they are having their children, according to an analysis by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The change appears to be driven by economic factors that include income levels, an increase in housing prices, student debt and education and work patterns. It’s likely “the new normal,” according to one of the study’s authors, noted economist and demographer Pamela Perlich.

Utah remains a place where women are having children. As the report states: “While Utah continues to have the highest fertility rate, youngest population, earliest age at first marriage, and largest household size in the nation, the shifts that began in 2008 may indicate a new trend in fertility rates for the state.

Why should anyone care about the drop?

Economic factors may be applying pressure that prevents individuals from making the family choices they actually desire, and the trend may also have far-reaching consequences for societal sustainability.

"Are we adequately supporting young families, are we providing the proper supports for people to care for their children and provide for them?" Perlich asked in a forum sponsored by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Deseret News.

Nationally the situation is even more stark. As of 2015, the fertility rate stood at 1.84 births per woman, which is below replacement rate, thought by experts to be about 2.1. Utah’s rate is still sustainable at 2.29.

As The Washington Post reported last summer, the birthrate is an important indicator of a nation’s demographic health. If the population can’t replace itself, it becomes top-heavy with aging people and a tax base that is no longer stable.

In the United States, that would mean fewer workers to fund Social Security and Medicare and an even more overburdened health care system. It also would mean the growing national debt would be harder, if not impossible, to control. Eventually, buildings would fall vacant, businesses would struggle with diminishing sales, schools would close and infrastructure would crumble as governments decide which programs to curtail because of budget cuts.

That kind of dire scenario is still very far off, and to date, immigration has been one way the United States has continued to expand its numbers.

A nation’s population won’t begin to decline until the last generation that had a sustainable birthrate dies off, experts say. But it’s already happening in some nations, making this concern beyond the U.S. Some nations have begun programs and ad campaigns urging people to have more children.

After World War I, fertility rates in the U.S. fell as young people postponed marriage. The Canadian economist Clarence Barber has drawn a connection between this and the severity of the Great Depression. Also during this time, fierce anti-immigration sentiments led Congress to stem the influx of people entering the country.

Unfortunately, that trend seems to be repeating itself today. But some demographers remain optimistic that current trends are temporary. Just as the baby boom after World War II reversed earlier trends, Americans could begin having large families and encouraging immigration again.

The first step has to be a greater general awareness of the looming problem. A second step would be to strengthen laws and tax incentives that promote and favor families. Ultimately, however, the solution lies in people, young people in particular, making a decision based on their values with economic climate to support them.