Will US Fertility Rates Ever Rise Again?

04/20/21 09:12AM EDT

Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

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According to op-ed writer Ross Douthat, there are three ways the U.S. can raise birthrates: faster economic growth, a stronger safety net, and rising social conservatism. He also hints that it may take two of these three--or maybe even all three--to get the job done. (The New York Times)

NH: After the pandemic baby bust is over, whither the U.S. birth rate?

We already know that our total fertility rate (TFR) is taking a big hit last year and this year--maybe going all the way down to around 1.55 in 2021. That may be close to 10% below where it was in 2019. And 25% below where it was in 2007.

Most of us assume it will rebound at least somewhat in 2022 and 2023. But after that? Will it keep trending down? Or is it due for a secular reversal in trend?

Ross Douthat, the eccentric conservative NYT columnist (and late-wave Xer, born in 1979), tries his best here to set the terms of the discussion, though he concedes of course that no one can know for certain. He predicts higher fertility, if and when it comes, will ride on one of three bets about the future.

One of his bets is for faster economic growth. Historically, yes, we have sometimes observed a correspondence between the two. Douthat mentions the obvious example of a steeply rising total fertility rate (TFR) during World War II and throughout the emerging "affluent society" of the late 1940s and 1950s. He also mentions the modest echo-boom in the late 1980s following the Reagan recovery.

Unfortunately, there are just as many (perhaps even more!) examples of strong economic growth that did nothing at all for fertility.

Consider the last business cycle, lasting from 2007 to 2019, which included one of the longest expansions ever. The total fertility rate (TFR) sank in all but one of those years. One might argue that this decade was an anomaly.

It suffered from weak income growth for younger and middle-class households and from public pessimism about the economy's long-term prospects. Fair enough. But then look at another growth decade, the 1960s, that was famous for its strengthening middle class and its surging Apollo-Moonshot optimism about future living standards. 

The TFR sank more steeply during the 1960s than in any other decade in American history (from 3.65 in 1960 to 2.46 in 1969). First-wave Xers, we're talking about you!

So much for leaning on economic determinism for any theory about fertility.

Douthat's second big bet is that "pronatalist" policies are enacted that encourage young families to have more children. This would certainly push in the right direction. And, as I have often pointed out, pronatalism does seem to gain momentum in societies that start to worry about declining fertility. (See "Nations Labor to Raise Their Birthrates," "China Embraces Pronatalism--Decades Too Late," and "Hungary's Pronatalism Policies Working.") Now that Americans are starting to fret a bit about fertility, both parties appear willing to get behind a growing array of child-rewarding tax favors and benefits, including Trump's 2017 enlargement of the child tax credit and most recently Biden's further expansion of the child credit into a refundable benefit.

The problem? Experience shows that you have to spend a lot to move the needle on births. France, for example, has one of the highest TFR's in Europe (1.88 in 2018). France achieves this in part by means of a very generous array of child benefits--at 3.6% of GDP, France spends more on child benefits than any other developed nation.

The United States, by contrast, is near the bottom, at just over 1% of GDP. If America wanted to institute pronatalism on a French scale, it would need to spend an extra 2.5% of GDP to that purpose. That's about half of what we now spend on Social Security. Needless to say, such an expensive new agenda would require a powerful public consensus.

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Aside from the sheer magnitude of spending, the other hurdle facing pronatalism in America is the significant ideological divide over just what sort of spending we're talking about.

Progressives favor programs that subsidize publicly run or regulated services to working moms (e.g., universal pre-K schooling and professional child care). Conservatives may or may not favor a work requirement for benefits (as with the EITC), but unlike progressives they want the benefits to be cross-the-board.

In other words, stay-at-home or home-schooling moms deserve equal favor. Some conservatives also would like benefits to favor married couples. Several Republican Senators--Mitt Romney, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio--have attempted to bridge all these gaps with mixed success.

So let's move on to Douthat's third bet. In this future, America's fertility rate will rise due to a "conservative" or "neo-traditionalist" turn in America's culture. This bet is tricky, since the proposition is tautological if one simply defines a neo-traditionalist era as one in which families choose to have more children.

Is there any objective and independent evidence in favor of the idea? Well, IMO, there probably is. A close look at such post-crisis eras as the early 1800s (the Era of Good Feelings following the American Revolution), the 1870s (the Victorian High following the Civil War), and the 1950s (the American High following World War II) would all show signs that these were eras of pro-family social traditionalism and religious conformism. They were also eras in which fertility either stabilized or rose--unlike other eras in which fertility generally declined.

But to say this much, of course, is to point out the limited usefulness of posing this bet. How can we "choose" a cultural turn that depends upon America traversing a great gate in history--in effect, the culmination of what I have called a "Fourth Turning"--that seems utterly beyond our choosing?

It's a bit like heaven: Great destination, but no one wants to die to get there.

Douthat says he detects suggestive evidence that such a shift in the culture has already begun. He sees younger Millennials and Generation Z flirting with traditionalism "via a sudden fascination with 'wholesome' cultures like the Mormons and the Amish, an anxiety about fertility-disrupting chemicals and the sex-robot dystopia, a vogue for matchmakers, a revolt against the professional-class expectations around delayed childbearing, and more." But he admits that the significance of all this is purely speculative.

Historically, what makes these post-crisis eras interesting for the study of fertility rates is that they seem to be characterized by all three of Douthat's bets. Yes, they were all eras of neo-traditional "family values." But they were also all eras of extraordinary economic growth and rising middle-class living standards.

And there were eras in which public policy tilted in a pro-family direction. Following the Civil War, the federal government inaugurated the "homestead" system of land grants, towns, and colleges designed for westward moving families. Following World War II, it established social insurance, labor standards, and union agreements designed to guarantee a "family wage" to middle-class bread winners.

Near the end of his essay, Douthat concedes that fertility rates may not change direction in any meaningful way unless all three of his bets happen at the same time. Is that unlikely? History suggests that maybe it's not. 

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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