The fertility rate in the United States is the lowest it’s ever been, currently hovering around 1.77, according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number equates to roughly how many children, on average, a woman living in 2018 will have; for comparison, the total fertility rate was 3.65 in 1960.
But demographers and economists say that to sustain our current population growth, that number really needs to rest somewhere closer to 2.1. Does the recent drop suggest cause for alarm? No—but with an asterisk, according to researchers from Penn’s Population Studies Center.
Hans-Peter Kohler, Pilar Gonalons-Pons, and Emilio Parrado, all of the Sociology department, focus their research on a range of fertility-related subjects, for example, health-related behaviors in developing and developed countries, family dynamics, and migration patterns in the United States, specifically by Hispanic populations.
“In our work, we’re broadly concerned with the processes that shape the size and composition of populations, both domestic and internationally,” Kohler says. “Fertility is one of the key driving forces, besides migration and mortality, and in the longer-term, arguably may be the most important.”
Fertility isn’t just about how many babies are born. It impacts how the U.S. population ages and how many people participate in this country’s labor force, as well as consumption patterns, particularly important in a place with a consumer-driven economy. It’s a crucial stat to monitor, yet seeing the number dip below 2.1 didn’t concern Gonalons-Pons.
Broadly speaking—and especially compared with other advanced industrial nations like Japan, Italy, and Germany—the U.S. had been an outlier. “Many European countries dropped below replacement level many years ago,” she says. “In some ways, it was surprising that it stayed as high as it did for so long.”
Kohler agrees: “There were changes happening under the surface, of course, but the big picture was one of stability and relatively high fertility that would have, by no means, concerned demographers and for that matter, didn’t even make headlines. That started to change around the 2008 economic recession.”
It makes sense that during a recession, individuals may delay having children if there are fewer short-term resources available. But even 10 years later, with the recession well in the rearview mirror, the U.S. fertility rate still hasn’t recovered. According to the Penn researchers, a few factors are likely coming into play.
For one, migration patterns have been changing, both for low-skilled and skilled immigrant workers, Parrado says. The recession eliminated a significant portion of jobs available to low-skilled workers, forcing many to seek employment elsewhere. Beyond that, the recent anti-immigrant political climate in the United States has lost the country some of its competitive edge in attracting foreign-born students.
“There’s this interaction between immigration and fertility,” Parrado says. “When immigration rates go down, fertility rates go down, too. Immigration was the main force maintaining the U.S. population’s relative youth compared to Europe, Japan, or even Canada. Now, the U.S. is aging very rapidly.”
In addition, it’s becoming increasingly hard for individuals in the U.S. to maintain pre-parenthood lifestyles after having children, partially because of a substantial drop in women’s income contributions following birth, Gonalons-Pons says. “If the household doesn’t have extra income or the partner doesn’t have stable employment, even a small variation in a woman’s earnings can put the household under the poverty threshold.”
That may lead to more young couples delaying when they start a family, which isn’t a new trend, Kohler explains, but one that has regained pace and momentum in the United States as of late. Pair that with a decline in unintended or mistimed pregnancies—many of which were teenage pregnancies—and the fertility picture comes into greater focus.
Despite a 1.77 fertility rate, Kohler says the U.S. continues to have relatively healthy demographics. “Would the current trends undermine living standards? I don’t think there’s any concern for that at this time,” he says. “In fact, if the U.S. population grows somewhat less rapidly, it may even be a good thing because right now, you’re pushing up against resources.”
Parrado says that though the lower fertility rate is just surfacing now, it’s been years in the making, a trend not likely not reversed by more or better family-friendly policies (which all three researchers believe the U.S. needs).
“This is the first time in history that we’re facing places where 20 percent, 30 percent of the population will be over 65. It’s proven that productivity increases until you reach age 40. After that, it stays flat and then starts declining,” Parrado says. “In addition, we have the lowest rate of population growth since the 1930s. We’re really entering a different population environment.”
Hans-Peter Kohler is the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography in the Department of Sociology, chair of the graduate group in Demography in the School of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Population Studies Center.