The United States, along with many other Western nations, is experiencing a significant decline in birth rates—a trend with deep and far-reaching implications. This decline is not a recent phenomenon but part of a long-term trend that has seen only minor interruptions, such as the modest increase in births following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the overall trajectory remains downward, signaling changes that could reshape the nation’s social and economic future.
As Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College who studies birth trends, observes, “We’re back where we started before COVID hit. Births are still declining, albeit perhaps at a slower pace.” This statement underscores the persistent nature of the trend, indicating that short-term fluctuations are not enough to reverse the broader pattern of decreasing birth rates.
The decline in births is not uniform across all states. Fast-growing states like Texas and Florida have seen increases in the number of births, but even there, the long-term trend bends downward. Levine notes that the overall decrease over the past 15 years is significant, with births down more than 650,000 or 15%. In contrast, states with declining overall populations, such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, have experienced some of the largest decreases in birth rates.
This demographic shift has critical implications. A lower birth rate leads to an aging population, which in turn creates a smaller workforce. This change can diminish economic productivity and place a greater burden on social welfare systems as a smaller base of workers supports a growing retired population. Stefan Rayer, population program director at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, points out that even in states like Florida, where there has been a population boom, the long-term trend is downward, with birth rates for Black, white, and Hispanic women well below the peaks in the mid-2000s.”
Several factors contribute to this decline in birth rates. One of the most prominent is economic challenges. The rising cost of living, including the significant expenses associated with raising a child, has become a considerable deterrent for many young couples. The burden of student loan debt and the difficulty of finding affordable housing further complicate the decision to start a family. As Leticia Quiles, a 36-year-old unemployed administrative assistant, reflects on her decision not to have children, she says, “We can barely take care of ourselves let alone take care of a child.”
Societal changes also play a significant role in declining birth rates. More women are pursuing higher education and career opportunities, leading to delayed marriages and family planning. While this shift represents progress towards gender equality and personal fulfillment, it also contributes to fewer children being born. Charles Hirschman, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington who studies fertility trends, highlights this shift: “We have successfully had the first gender revolution with women almost reaching parity in traditional male roles, but there has been little progress in bringing men into participating equality in household and child-rearing roles.”
The impact of global events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, cannot be underestimated. The pandemic brought economic uncertainty and health concerns, making people more hesitant to bring children into an unpredictable world. Additionally, fears about climate change and resource shortages influence the decision-making process of potential parents. Cara Pattullo, a 31-year-old urban and environmental planner, voices this concern, saying, “To me it feels borderline unethical to even be having kids with the way the future is looking in terms of climate change and resource shortages and all of that.”
This trend is not limited to the United States but is observed in many Western countries, including Canada. The global implications are significant, as declining populations can lead to economic stagnation and challenges in maintaining social services and infrastructure. As a response, some countries have implemented policies to encourage childbearing, such as subsidized childcare, paid family leave, and even “baby bonuses.” However, these measures often take time to impact birth rates significantly.
The declining birth rate in the U.S. and other Western countries has profound implications. In many ways the long term clash of civilizations depends on the birth rate. Many populations in the developing word are reproducing at a rate many times faster than we do, and they will immigrate. The American and European cultures as they are now, will not survive the coming decades.