BLUF: For the sixth consecutive year, the American birth rate fell in 2020. Factors contributing to the decline include concern by the current childbearing generation over economic, political, and global instability. While valid concerns, continued population decline within the US may actually exacerbate these same concerns in the long-term, causing a cyclical effect with global implications.
The decision to have children may be the most personal one a person can make. It certainly has been for me. In a world that still too often defines women by her capacity to birth a human being, I’ve found it difficult to explain my personal views on the subject even to the most understanding people. “I don’t think I want them,” is often my response. It’s noncommittal because I believe there may come a time in my life when perhaps I will change my mind; but it is not without significant consideration that I find myself having reservations.
At 30 years old, I’m acutely aware of the world within which I would be bringing a child: Hottest days on record, a global pandemic, and an America divided on almost everything. As a professional who spends my days talking about national security, nuclear weapons, cyber hacking, drones, etc., I find it painstakingly difficult to navigate how I could bring a mini into a world I deem unsafe not just because of the news I read but because of the job I have.
But am I alone in my hesitations, or do national security concerns have anything to do with changing birth rates?
WHY NO BABIES?
For the sixth consecutive year, the American birth rate fell in 2020. This time, the 4% drop produced the lowest number of babies born in the US since 1979: Just 3.6 million. So why aren’t Americans having babies like we used to? Recent studies show plenty of nuance but really it comes down to one thing: The world has changed a lot — and fast.
The pandemic alone is probably not solely to blame for dramatic declines in population but it is certainly exacerbating all the trends causing current and future generations to rethink babies.
Unlike previous generations, the “American Dream” and middle class look a lot different for current childrearing families than it did when our parents and grandparents were raising kids. Economic recessions coupled with increased costs of living that have not kept pace with inflation make it difficult for the current babymaker generation to feel stable enough to buy a home, have savings, or (gasp!) have both. In a recent survey, 23% of respondents said they weren’t having children because they are worried about the economy, 31% to an inability to afford childcare, and 13% are concerned about student debt. While great news for equality, 43% of women are working now (compared to 11% in 1968) but many of those same women worry their careers will be affected by becoming mothers. They aren’t wrong. Turns out women’s earning potential drops to 20% less over the course of their careers than their male counterparts if they have kids. With every additional child, a woman loses an additional 4%, while the opposite happens for men, whose income rises by 6%.
Even among those who chose to have at least one kiddo, financial concerns are leading them to have fewer than planned with 64% citing childcare as too expensive, 43% saying they waited too long because of financial instability, and 40% lacking paid family leave. Likely for financial and career reasons, the current child-rearing generation is also waiting longer to get married, which in many cases (though not all!) also delays babies — a contributing factor in having fewer children than previous generations. The average age of marriage in 2020 was 32 compared to 21.5 in 1960; babies at 26 compared to 21 in 1972.
And lucky for me, but maybe not so much for the world, it turns out I am not alone in my national security woes and worries when it comes to a decision to have babies. According to the same NYT study, 18% say their decision to not have children is because of global instability, 11% and 10% said climate change and domestic politics respectively are affecting their decision. A separate 2020 study found that 96% of surveyed adults 27 to 45 factored climate concerns into their fertility decisions, and are very or extremely concerned about having children in a climate-changed world — though the demographics of those in the study are not clear. Some recent reports have shown that in other countries, like China, climate has also resulted in fertility shifts but significant research is lacking in this area. Some go as far as saying that they regret having children who will be responsible for the climate burden. It’s also not just millennials. Gen Z is having perhaps even more of an existential crisis. A recent op-ed in the award-winning student journal “Et Cetera” stated, “There are many other reasons why my generation does not want children. An important reason is that our earth is literally dying before our eyes, and the older generations are to blame for it.”
If the climate wasn’t enough to do it, try adding polarizing political differences. “A month before the election, roughly 8 in 10 registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly 9 in 10 — again in both camps — worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States,” found a Pew study. That was before the pandemic happened. Now? 76% of Americans think we are more divided than before COVID-19.
New studies are also emerging from the pandemic with experts arguing that if those of childbearing age were on the fence about kids before COVID-19, the health, financial, and political upheaval experienced in the past year and a half is causing many to press the pause button on future planning. For example, minorities are disproportionately seeing an impact to their family planning. According to a 2020 report, “44% of Black women and 48% of Hispanic women said that in the face of a global pandemic they wanted to wait to get pregnant or have fewer children. Queer women (almost half) also were more likely to be putting off pregnancy.” The principle research scientist of the study, Laura Lindberg, noted “These groups already bear the brunt of existing inequities. The pandemic has only made these disparities worse. ”
The pandemic alone is probably not solely to blame for dramatic declines in population but it is certainly exacerbating all the trends causing current and future generations to rethink babies. One interesting note is that some have argued this decline in the American population was not just predictable but inevitable. Adrian Raferty points out that in the 1800s, American women on average gave birth to seven children (wowza) but then fertility rates decreased steadily, falling to just 1.74 children per woman in 1976. That turning point marked what he calls “the end of America’s fertility transition.” The fall is theoretically due to industrialization — think better mortality rates, increased education for women, a rise in the cost of raising children, etc. He goes on to explain that “birth rates have fluctuated up and down in the 45 years since, rising to 2.11 in 2007,” which he says was unusually high. One caveat to this is that our population has not just reached peak fertility dips, but is also nearing historical death rates — a factor not accounted for in Raferty’s models.
On a personal note, while the changing world certainly is having a significant impact on childbearing decisions, perhaps I am more one-track-minded of the doom from my DC national security bubble. An assumption loosely backed by my personal conversations and a social media poll I ran in August where 50% of respondents said their career in national security affects their decision to have kids.
AS AMERICANS AGE….
Naturally, all this data strikes another interesting question. Does a declining population (maybe caused by concerns over national security and global instability) have a reverberating effect back on national security?
And it turns out, yup, it does!
America’s economy is going to change: A declining birth rate is also being met with scientific advancements that are increasing life expectancy — great for medical triumphs, not great for social support networks or labor trends. The result of an aging population without a working class to adequately support it is Social Security and Medicare math that doesn’t add up. Without a robust younger population to pay into Social Security, the system will collapse impacting retirement ages, labor markets, healthcare systems, etc. Just last week it was announced that America’s Social Security well is expected to run dry in 2033 and Medicare in 2026.
An aging population without bustling youth often leads to other things beyond social insurance and pension systems. A recent report forecasts the effect aging populations will have on overall economic growth, trade, migration, and disease patterns. For example, by 2030, one in every three people will be 65 or older in Japan, with one in five people 75-plus years old. The aging population is significantly impacting the macroeconomy of Japan. “Due to the nation’s aging and shrinking population, there is an increased need to address the labor shortage.” Without enough youth to replenish the labor force, “Japan’s major industries — like motor vehicles and electronics — do not possess the manpower to continue at the current level of production.” The country may be unable to keep its place in the global economy if production is unable to keep pace. But some experts have suggested the decline could be good for the US eco-system because it may force America to have an entire system shift — one that addresses climate, healthcare, childcare, and debt.
America’s political landscape is going to change: “If you can’t beat ‘em, outbreed ‘em.” I’d never thought about it before but it makes perfect sense. The children being born today will be the ones voting in 18 years. Statistically, when it came to voting in 2020, Democrats were concerned about climate, COVID, health care, racial, and economic inequality; while Republicans were concerned with gun control, the economy, crime, immigration, and abortion. Both were neck-in-neck on foreign policy. If Democrats are the ones concerned with inequality and climate, one could assume Democrats are also more likely to be the ones putting off children because of those concerns. If Republicans continue procreating at significantly higher rates, domestic politics are almost certain to see a shifting landscape in a matter of generations, given that 70% of teens vote similarly to their parents. Arthur Brooks, a social scientist at Syracuse University flagged this in 2006, “The political right is having a lot more kids than the political left.” The gap, he said, was 41%. Again, basic math shows that Republicans are primed to have higher voting representation in the decades to come.
America’s immigration has changed and may need to again: One thing noted in several reports, including Rafterty’s, is that while population decline might have been inevitable, the decline in immigration (which usually makes up the difference in low birth rates) is not. In previous decades, US immigration has seen a net gain compensating for the birth decline. “Migrants tend to be young, and to work. They contribute to the economy and bring dynamism to the society, along with supporting existing retirees, reducing the burden on current workers.” But a trend that was expected to continue has dramatically shifted due to recent US policies. Net migration to the US declined by 40% from 2015 to 2019. If a systematic shift and change in policies cannot either boost birth rates or immigration soon, America demographics may start to look like Germany or Japan, with an aging population that as noted earlier brings with it all kinds of problems.
THE LINKS BETWEEN BABIES AND NATSEC
While these seemingly domestic impacts only begin to scratch the surface, each facet is intrinsically linked to national security and foreign policy. How strong America’s economy is directly impacts global markets. American innovation, trade, political battles, social systems; each of these iceberg tips have cataclysmic global effects beneath the surface.
We will likely not see the long-term effects of population declines for several generations to come (or not to come) but it is certain that I am not alone in my hesitations, nor are you if you share them. Regardless, the decision to have children remains yours to make in America. I, for one, will continue to work in national security and do everything in my power to make the world safer for whatever the future may hold.
No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.
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