American birth rates plummeted between 2009 and 2019. Lyman Stone offers us a concerning metric to measure the loss: “missing births.” If, he asks, birth rates had remained throughout the following decade what they were in 2008, “how many more babies would have been born?” The answer? 5.8 million. In other words, today there is a nearly six-million-child deficit in the United States. Or, as he puts it more graphically, “that’s almost like saying nobody had a baby for a year and a half.”
That data comes from research published February 3 by the Institute for Family Studies where Stone, a former market forecaster for the U. S. Department of Agriculture, is a research fellow. Readers unfamiliar with the work of IFS ought to make its acquaintance, because the organization produces pro-marriage and pro-family studies that generally let the numbers speak persuasively for themselves, independent of partisan, ideological, and/or sectarian filters.
America’s baby deficit should be concerning in and of itself, but Stone’s research shows the decline cut across all demographic cohorts. Non-Hispanic whites were responsible for about 1.95 of those 5.8 million missing babies. But the largest group contributing to empty cradles were Hispanics: Their share of the baby bust was over 47 percent, or nearly 2.75 million fewer children. In 2008, the average Hispanic woman could expect 2.8 babies; the figure is now 2.0. Remember that 2.2 is necessary simply to maintain a stable population.
Every major demographic group—whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans—exhibited clear downward trajectories for most years in the decade, and all ended 2019 with declines anywhere from 14 to 28 percent. What is noteworthy is that, following the 2008-11 recession, all groups continued that downward trend, some more gradual (whites, blacks), others steeper (Hispanics and especially Native Americans, the latter tracking almost straight downward). Even for Asians, whose trend lines exhibited three rises during the decade, occasional plateaus did not compensate for an overall decline.
(Interestingly, had 2008 birth rates persisted, 2019 would have been the first year that non-Hispanic whites ceased to be a majority of new births, a demographic shift cancelled by the precipitous drop in Hispanic births. Also, interestingly, Stone separately notes that pandemics tend to depress birthrates. With 451,000 COVID-19 deaths and anecdotal reporting in the mainstream media that, enforced stay-at-home orders notwithstanding, folks still aren’t “doing what comes naturally,” the events of 2020 may only exacerbate population decline.)
Stone’s study limits itself to the last ten years, but trends in American (and worldwide) demography haven’t been something to write home about for decades. IFS has long been sounding the alarm about the decline of American fertility connected to socio-cultural trends like delayed marriage (the average age at which American men and women enter their first marriages is higher than it has ever been, as is the number of never marrieds); the dissociation of marriage from parenthood (which IFS describes as the ascendancy of a “soul mate”-model of companionate marriage over marriage and family); more general acceptance of divorce (“kids are resilient”); and the growing numbers of Americans who, with longer life expectancies, now spend fewer actual years and a lesser percentage of their adult lives with children present in them. In brief, children are less seen and heard simply because they are not there. Society in general, and Western society in particular, is growing increasingly unfamiliar with the fact and experience of children as a normal and desirable part of the social landscape.
Although Stone does not go into the specifics of what has caused the 2009-19 baby bust, he does spell out its consequences, which include economic ones: Today’s absence of one-to ten-year-olds will translate in 10 to 15 years into an absence of young workers— from teens learning work ethos from an afterschool job to young people stepping into their first, full-time employment. That lacuna will also continue to move through the workforce in ensuing decades and, if the 2009-19 trends continue, only magnify its baneful effects. There will be national security implications (where are tomorrow’s military recruits to come from?) and political consequences (how volatile will politics be in an aging society increasingly dependent on entitlements for which no workers are paying?). Stone also underscores the consequences of the birth dearth to which economists give short shrift because they cannot attach numbers to them: for example, increased loneliness, and increased numbers of old people surrounded primarily by other old people. I would add the social consequences of a population of aging egotists who, absent the parental experience, never learned to share—never acquired the developmental maturity that psychologist Erik Erikson attributed to “generativity,” that is, taking responsibility for another generation.
The consequences of Stone’s research become even more alarming when read in conjunction with an article published last July in the British medical journal The Lancet. A team of researchers modeled population and migration trends for almost every country on earth, attempting to predict what those countries would look like in 2100. While there are risks of projecting over that long a period, it appears that, for a few countries, population will grow sluggishly from current levels. But for many others, declining birth rates will render them but waning shadows of what they are today. The United States, they project, will grow from its current (2017) 324 million to perhaps 335 million people. (From 1900-2000, the U.S. expanded from 76 to 282 million people). Canada sees a growth spurt (35 to 44 million people) but, in absolute numbers, the world’s second largest country (in terms of land mass) would have slightly more people than California has today. (Canada grew from 5 to 34 million people in the 20th century).
But many European countries will shrink: Germany from 83 to 66 million people, Italy from 60 to 30 million, Poland from 38 to 15 million, Russia from 146 to 106 million. By contrast, the Muslim world of North Africa and the Middle East is projected to grow by more than half (from 600 to 978 million people). The only other region of projected robust growth is sub-Saharan Africa.
Again, long-term projections are risky, but our own numbers from the past decade do not augur well for bucking them. These American demographic trends must also reckon with the loss of over 65,000,000 people since 1973 because of legalized abortion. As I noted in another article, to help readers conceptualize that loss, if we were to superimpose that population deficit on a map of the United States, there would not be a single person living in the eleven states of the Mid-Atlantic and New England except Maine. Nobody going north from Washington until you hit Maine. Or, for West Coast fans, nobody west of Utah: totally empty California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona.
Can we continue to pretend that society has neither interest nor stake in parenthood and childbearing?