Last week, Ezra noted that the U.S. birth rate has reached its lowest point on record. That development has prompted a fair bit of kvetching, most notably New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's declaration that this is a symptom of "late-modern exhaustion," a "decadence" that "now haunts rich societies around the globe."
That sounds pretty bad. But before we start assigning world-historical import to this number, we should ask if it's actually the one we ought to be looking at. Stephen Bronars, an economic consultant and former chair of the University of Texas - Austin's economics departments, argues convincingly that it's not.
The birth rate could be lower, he notes, because women are choosing to have fewer babies. But it could also be lower due to the recession, or simply because random fluctuations in births 20 to 30 years ago mean there are fewer women at peak child-bearing age than there used to be. The second problem is amplified by the fact that women are, thanks to more widely available contraception and other reproductive care, choosing to delay child-rearing until later in life.
So Bronars compared birth rates for women at different points in their lives: when they're 20, or 25, or 30, etc. He then compared those birth rates to what you'd expect if a given generation followed the previous one's patterns. What he found was that women are actually having more children than their predecessors. It's just that they're having them later on: