What’s Next For The Fertility Rate? (Part 2)

&l;p&g;&l;img class=&q;dam-image shutterstock size-large wp-image-1093375184&q; src=&q;https://specials-images.forbesimg.com/dam/imageserve/1093375184/960×0.jpg?fit=scale&q; data-height=&q;573&q; data-width=&q;960&q;&g; Shutterstock

With apologies for, once again, a rhetorical question.

On Thursday,&l;span&g;&a;nbsp;&l;/span&g;&l;a href=&q;https://www.forbes.com/sites/ebauer/2018/05/17/whats-next-for-american-fertility-rates-and-social-security/#48bc420565e7&q;&g;I wrote that the fertility rate&l;/a&g;, measured as lifetime number of births per woman (TFR) is now just a hair above its historic low.&a;nbsp; Demographers don&s;t know what&s;s going on, because it&s;s not following the expected pattern of recovering from a recession-induced dip, and there&s;s uncertainty as to whether this is really a matter of deferred childbirth, &q;lost&q; children from this particular cohort, or a long-term change in the birth rate.

If you ask twitter, the reasons are clear — that is, I&s;ve been watching comments in my twitter &q;mentions&q; celebrating the decline in the birthrate as the consequence of women being freer to reject motherhood, whether they choose to do so because of economic necessity, or simple lack of interest in parenting, or a grey area in-between.

At the same time, it&s;s a trivial but nonetheless true statement that we simply don&s;t know what will happen when these women reach the end of their childbearing years.&a;nbsp; Back in January, &l;a href=&q;http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/18/theyre-waiting-longer-but-u-s-women-today-more-likely-to-have-children-than-a-decade-ago/&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;Pew reported&l;/a&g; that among women who are now ages 40 -44, the percent who remain childless has declined, and average number of lifetime births has ticked upward.&a;nbsp; Here&s;s the key graph:

&l;img class=&q;size-full wp-image-421&q; src=&q;http://blogs-images.forbes.com/ebauer/files/2018/05/Pew_motherhood-lede-new-00.jpg?width=960&q; alt=&q;&q; data-height=&q;462&q; data-width=&q;640&q;&g; &q;&l;a href=&q;http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/18/theyre-waiting-longer-but-u-s-women-today-more-likely-to-have-children-than-a-decade-ago/&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;They&a;rsquo;re Waiting Longer, but U.S. Women Today More Likely to Have Children Than a Decade Ago&l;/a&g;,&q; Pew Research Center, Jan. 18, 2018

Likewise, data produced by the Census Bureau (as of May of 2017) confirms that the number of women who remain childless at ages 30 -34 has spiked upwards since the recession but that the rates for older women have remained stable.&a;nbsp; (Note that the gap after 2012 was due to changes in methodology so direct comparisons cannot be made.)

&l;img class=&q;size-full wp-image-425&q; src=&q;http://blogs-images.forbes.com/ebauer/files/2018/05/childless-snagit-2.jpg?width=960&q; alt=&q;&q; data-height=&q;555&q; data-width=&q;798&q;&g; &q;&l;a href=&q;https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2017/05/childlessness_rises.html&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;Childlessness Rises for Women in Their Early 30s&l;/a&g;,&q; Census Blogs, May 3, 2017.


At the same time, I am a skeptic of the idea that, all other things being equal, women and men will &q;naturally&q; gravitate towards having, on average, a replacement-level number of children, when all barriers are removed.&a;nbsp; This is, of course, the fundamental assumption underlying efforts in places such as Germany and Japan to make state-subsidized childcare available to all, or the generous provision of child benefits and family leave as well.&a;nbsp; This is touted as France&s;s great success:&a;nbsp; the state&s;s pro-natal policies boosting the birthrate, as well as social norms promoting working mothers, are praised in, for example, a &l;a href=&q;https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/21/france-population-europe-fertility-rate&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;Guardian article from 2015&l;/a&g;&a;nbsp;(though there, too, &l;a href=&q;https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-birth-rate-hit-lowest-level-40-years-france-young-women-stable-situations-having-children-a7533951.html&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;birthrates are dropping&l;/a&g;).

This assumption seems to underlie not just the U.S. Social Security actuarial assumption that birthrates will rebound, but WHO fertility rate projections as well.&a;nbsp; For example,&a;nbsp;&l;span&g;Japan&a;rsquo;s current TFR is 1.48. &a;nbsp;The &l;a href=&q;https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Download/Standard/Fertility/&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;UN projects, in their &a;ldquo;medium variant,&a;rdquo;&l;/a&g; that it will increase progressively until it reaches 1.79 in 2100.&a;nbsp; Likewise,&a;nbsp;&l;/span&g;Korea&a;rsquo;s TFR is projected to grow from 1.32 to 1.78; Germany, from 1.47 to 1.73, and Canada is projected to move from 1.56 to 1.78.

In part, this assumption of rebounding fertility seems to come from surveys that ask what one&s;s &q;ideal&q; number of children is; surveys regularly report that the &q;intended family size&q; is, on average, considerably higher than the actual fertility rate suggests.&a;nbsp; A recent OECD report, &q;&l;a href=&q;http://www.oecd.org/els/family/SF_2_2-Ideal-actual-number-children.pdf&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;Ideal and actual number of children&l;/a&g;&q; (dated 2011 with a notion of &q;2016 update&q;), reports on surveys asking, &q;Generally speaking, what do you think is the ideal number of children for a family?&q; and the follow-up question, &q;And for you personally, what would be the ideal number if children you would like to have or would have liked to have?&q;&a;nbsp; For the EU, responses to the second question show a dramatic difference in the actual number of children women have and the number they say they would like to have.

&l;img class=&q;size-full wp-image-427&q; src=&q;http://blogs-images.forbes.com/ebauer/files/2018/05/OECD-intended-children.jpg?width=960&q; alt=&q;&q; data-height=&q;497&q; data-width=&q;962&q;&g; &q;Ideal general number of children,&q; OECD Family Database. http://www.oecd.org/els/family/SF_2_2-Ideal-actual-number-children.pdf

For the United States, we have the General Social Survey, which asks only the former question, namely, &q;What do you think is the ideal number of children for a family to have?&q;&a;nbsp; Using a simple weighted average of responses, we see that ideal family size has actually been ticking up slightly:

&l;img class=&q;size-full wp-image-430&q; src=&q;http://blogs-images.forbes.com/ebauer/files/2018/05/Average-ideal-family-size.jpg?width=960&q; alt=&q;&q; data-height=&q;488&q; data-width=&q;843&q;&g; Ideal number of children, from the General Social Survey, https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/variables/619/vshow

and that the percent of respondents preferring relatively larger families is also increasing moderately (though, bear in mind, these responses are taken from the total survey population, that is, all age groups).

&l;img class=&q;size-full wp-image-431&q; src=&q;http://blogs-images.forbes.com/ebauer/files/2018/05/Ideal-children-pcts.jpg?width=960&q; alt=&q;&q; data-height=&q;486&q; data-width=&q;852&q;&g; Ideal family size, from General Social Survey, https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/variables/619/vshow

But rather than (or perhaps in addition to) suggesting that individuals are missing the opportunity to parent their desired number of children, due to a poor economy or lack of supports, or changed perceptions of how much money and time one needs to raise a child, I wonder whether there&s;s something else at play here:&a;nbsp; could there be an emerging split, with a rising percent of Americans believing that the work of raising the next generation is all well and good, but reserved for other, more willing people?&a;nbsp; &a;nbsp;After all, once getting married and starting a family is no longer the &q;normal&q; thing to do in one&s;s twenties, once women start to view a baby as a &q;capstone&q; following career success, as a &l;a href=&q;https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/05/the-rise-of-older-mothers/560555/&q; target=&q;_blank&q;&g;recent Atlantic article suggested&l;/a&g;, once, indeed, having children becomes a choice one must make, it becomes all the clearer that this is a choice which requires not just financial sacrifice, but sacrifice of free time that may have become particularly valued for pursuing a hobby or working extra hours for advancement&s;s sake.&a;nbsp; And recall, again, that the considerably greater drops in births among ethnic minorities, from much-higher-than-whites to only-a-little-bit-higher, suggests that even this narrative isn&s;t quite right, and raises questions of fertility rates by family income that are much harder to pin down and make for much more uncomfortable discussions.

But (if I haven&s;t already exhausted your patience with my&a;nbsp;charts) here&s;s the bottom line:&a;nbsp; it already is the case that&a;nbsp;declining birth rates will affect Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare,&a;nbsp;un(der)funded public pensions, and the like.&a;nbsp; How an aging population will affect a country&s;s economic vitality and ability to innovate is a source of much hand-wringing.&a;nbsp; But&a;nbsp;if there is a widening economic and social/cultural gap&a;nbsp;between families and non-families, this will&a;nbsp; also impact how we allocate resources, and lead to further disputes about that allocation, that will make figuring the whole thing out much harder.&l;/p&g;