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America’s baby bust

Birth | A new study reveals the number of U.S. women giving birth has reached its lowest point ever recorded

The overall U.S. birthrate fell in 2011 to its lowest level ever recorded, according to a recently released study from the Pew Research Center.

The rate that year dropped to 63 births per 1,000 women in the prime childbearing ages of 15 to 44. That’s the lowest since 1920, the earliest year for which reliable numbers exist. The rate declined 8 percent from 2007 to 2010.

The overall U.S. birthrate peaked in the post-World War II baby boom years, reaching almost 123 per 1,000 women in 1957, before sagging in the mid-1970s to between 65 and 70. The rate remained steady for 30 years, until it began falling again in 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession, according to the report.

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In recent decades, falling birthrates in some European and Asian countries, including Germany and Japan, already has governments struggling to find enough workers to provide the tax revenue needed to finance programs to care for growing numbers of retirees. Demographers warn a global “population implosion” could lead to serious political instability.

In this country, the birthrate has hovered around replacement level since the early 1970s. But a large immigrant population, which includes women who tend to have more children than American-born women, kept the U.S. population growing.

That is why one of the more significant findings of the Pew report is that immigrant women, especially Hispanic women, are adopting the child-bearing patterns of their American-born neighbors, noted journalist Jonathan Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. While the birthrate for U.S.-born women fell 6 percent during these years, the rate for foreign-born women fell even further—14 percent—including a 23 percent drop for immigrant women born in Mexico.

This “collapse” suggests that the United States will be less able to rely on immigrant families for population growth, Last said. “What worries you isn’t the number itself, but the broader trends.”

If they continue, the United States could find itself facing the problems associated with a population decline sooner than expected, according to Last, who added that most demographers predict the global population implosion will hit crisis levels around 2050.

The Pew report received relatively little media attention until New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a column headlined “More Babies, Please,” in which he suggested that the “retreat from child rearing” is a “symptom of late-modern exhaustion, a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.”

The suggestion that choosing not to have children is “decadent” prompted a flurry of criticism, including an accusation of misogyny and racism, but Last said that Douthat has a point. Many factors contribute to declining fertility, including a lack of hope in the future and a culture that discourages people from taking on the hard work of rearing children.

“Modernity has turned us into a deeply unserious people,” Last said.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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