The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Lower fertility rates are the new cultural norm

A toy shopping kart in playground in Manhattan in 2020. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)
5 min

Washington is buzzing over a Wall Street Journal/NORC poll suggesting that Americans are now much less likely than 25 years ago to describe norms such as tolerance and patriotism as “very important” to them. Axios said the data connote national “rot,” while Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini argued that methodological quirks overstate the actual shifts.

On one point, though, the poll seems realistic. The percentage who say that having children is very important to them has dropped from 43 percent to 30 percent since 2019. This fits with data showing that, since 2007, the total fertility rate in the United States has fallen from 2.1 lifetime births per woman, the “replacement rate” necessary to sustain population levels, to just 1.64 in 2020.

The U.S. economy is losing an edge that robust population dynamics gave it relative to low-birth-rate peer nations in Japan and Western Europe; this country, too, faces chronic labor-supply constraints as well as an even less favorable “dependency ratio” between workers and retirees than it already expected.

Perhaps it was inevitable this form of American exceptionalism would give way to global trends. Still, the timing and the magnitude of such a demographic sea-change cry out for explanation. What happened in 2007?

New financial constraints on family formation are a potential cause, as implied by another striking finding in the Journal poll — 78 percent of adults lack confidence this generation of children will enjoy a better life than they do.

Yet a recent analysis for the Aspen Economic Strategy Group by Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, economics professors at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College, respectively, determined that “beyond the temporary effects of the Great Recession, no recent economic or policy change is responsible for a meaningful share of the decline in the US fertility rate since 2007.”

Their study took account of such factors as the high cost of child care, student debt service and housing as well as Medicaid coverage and the wider availability of long-acting reversible contraception. Yet they had “no success finding evidence” that any of these were decisive.

Kearney and Levine speculated instead that the answers lie in the cultural zeitgeist — “shifting priorities across cohorts of young adults,” as they put it.

A possibility worth considering, they suggested, is that young adults who experienced “intensive parenting” as children now balk at the heavy investment of time and resources needed to raise their own kids that way: It would clash with their career and leisure goals.

The question of how such attitudes have crystallized and spread since 2007 remains, bringing to mind another event that year: Apple released the first iPhone, a revolutionary cultural moment if there ever was one. The ensuing smartphone-enabled social media boom — Facebook had opened membership to anyone older than 13 in 2006 — forever changed how human beings relate with one another.

We are just beginning to understand this development’s effect on mental health, education, religious observance, community cohesion — everything. Why wouldn’t it also affect people’s willingness to have children?

A 2001 National Academy of Sciences study assessed the impact on fertility rates when television arrived in various societies. The study, which focused on developing countries such as Brazil, suggested that one indirect way new media affect childbearing rates is through “time competition effects” — essentially, hours spent watching the tube cannot be spent forming romantic partnerships.

According to a 2021 review of survey data on young adults and adolescents in the United States and other countries, the years between 2009 and 2018 saw a marked decline in reported sexual activity. Again, the authors hypothesized that people are distracted from the search for partners by “increasing use of computer games and social media.”

Then there are the substantive messages that new media propagate, which can sometimes work in mysterious ways. Two studies sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank found that, during the late 20th century, Brazil’s fertility rates fell after women who watched soap operas depicting smaller families sought to emulate them by having fewer children themselves.

U.S. births ticked up about 51,000 between 2020 and 2021; as The Post’s Catherine Rampell has reported, pandemic-related government benefits and work-from-home opportunities helped confound expectations that the sharp recession would cause a baby bust.

This raised the total fertility rate to 1.66 but it would take many more, bigger, boomlets to undo the post-2007 baby bust, an unlikely prospect even if the United States pays cash bonuses to parents and subsidizes child care in an effort to raise birthrates. It’s been tried in other developed countries with only modest success, Kearney and Levine note.

This may be an area where incentives do not influence behavior, at least not enough. Whether the cultural shift to lower birthrates occurs on an accelerated basis, as in the United States after 2007, or gradually, as it did in Japan, it appears permanent — “sticky,” as policy wonks say.

Ahead lie the challenges of boosting the labor force’s productivity and paying for health care and pensions — as well as contentious politics over the need for more immigration. All of these issues might be manageable — but not avoidable.