Demographic update: American births continue to decline

How are demographics changing, and what does that transformation suggest about the future?

Recently the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published new data on American birthrates. While the results are not surprising to people who follow the topic, they are very useful.

The first and major takeaway is that the number of children we have continues to decline.

American birthrates 2000-2023_CDC

Note that I’m referring to two numbers here: the absolute number of births and also the number of children per 1,000 women. We’re having fewer children, in other words, and fewer women are having them.  The peak was in 2007.  Things slid down afterwards, starting with the Great Recession (this is where Nathan Grawe’s demographic cliff comes in), really dropping for COVID’s first year, ticking up a little right after, then following the overall downward trend.  Which brings us to the latest item: “The total fertility rate was 1,616.5 births per 1,000 women in 2023, a decline of 2% from 2022.”  That’s about 1.62 per woman.

CDC identifies some interesting if slight differences between racial groups:

The provisional number of births declined 5% for American Indian and Alaska Native women, 4% for Black women, 3% for White women, and 2% for Asian women from 2022 to 2023. Births rose 1% for Hispanic women and were essentially unchanged for Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander women…

I’ve written about what this means before – on this blog, in articles, in a book – so I’ll briefly summarize here what I see as the implications.

Generally speaking, America’s population is pointing towards contraction.  Listen carefully to the CDC’s observation:

The total fertility rate in 2023 remained below replacement—the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself (2,100 births per 1,000 women). The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971 and consistently below replacement since 2007…

“Below replacement.”  That means the population will shrink.  This is what Japan and South Korea, among others, are going through now.  So why is America’s population still growing?  Partly it’s the people already in the mix, but the main reason is immigration.  Immigration brings a lot of folks, and they tend to be younger. If we were to Trump the borders shut and end immigration tomorrow, fairly quickly our total numbers would start to dwindle, incrementally yet steadily.  This demographic fact underpins our fractious immigration politics.

Declining birthrates is a long-running trend, too.  Note that “below replacement since 1971.”  This demographic trend is a condition of modernity, in my view.  That is, once a society goes through industrialism and beyond, building up enough wealth, improving health care and public health, then giving women more access to education, jobs, and reproductive control, your fertility rate falls.

There are all kinds of civic implications to this.  The flipside of fewer children is older folks living longer, so there’s the growing support problem inherent in that dynamic. There’s the issue of having enough workers to keep the whole system going, even after productivity improvements. I wonder about national identity, especially for a youth-crazed culture like America’s.

There is pushback to this, unsurprisingly, as some people call out for more births.  Usually any resulting efforts flop, but that shouldn’t mean we won’t see more.  Already some Americans champion neonatalism.  As I’ve said, this could become a major national debate.

In case that sounds too grim, let me cheer you up with a hilarious Danish pro-childbirth ad campaign:

Back to the point: what does this trend (demographic transition, not Danish media) mean for higher education?  Clearly the trend pinches the K-12 pipeline for traditional-age undergraduates, which increases competition between institutions serving that population.  It might incentivize colleges and universities to seek more from other populations, like adult, online, and international would-be students.  Failing such a successful transition, we may expect academic programs to shrink and institutions to merge or shut down.

I do wonder if we’ll see more academics call for more births.  I’m not seeing a lot of this yet, but we might expect some professor or administrator to take up a neonatalist position for the reasons just cited.

Let me conclude by noting one additional feature in the CDC report, which seems weirdly unremarked upon, but for me stands as a clear sign of progress.  Teen births have fallen off a cliff, plummeting since 1991:

American teen birthrates 1991-2023 _CDC

They’re kind of leveling off now, but wow!  From the 90s to around 30, from nearly 40 to around 5. Older readers will recall social anxiety, even panic over teen motherhood back in the 1980s and 1990s.  It looks like we largely solved that problem.  Good news.

What might that mean for higher education?  More teen women will have a better chance at post-secondary schooling, primarily.

To sum up: nothing shocking in this report.  America’s birthdate, like that of every society which has gone through modernity, is shrinking.  This shapes our future powerfully.

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6 Responses to Demographic update: American births continue to decline

  1. Joe says:

    We all need a new economic system that can do more with fewer folks. Japan will be test case.

    A declining population would be a boon to our damaged global ecosystems. My hope is that we’ll have half a billion folks on the globe by 2200, without a massive war or pandemic.

    Large families made sense in an agricultural economy or even an industrial one. Here’s to a universal income paid by an automation tax in the age of AI.

    We just do not need 10 billion folks on our globe. We can get our work done and lead more productive lives with fewer neighbors. I just hope getting there is peaceful.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Joe is right — “We just do not need 10 billion folks on our globe” — in fact, if you want a solution to climate change, a population of 1 billion is at the top of the list.
      Trouble is, of course, no government – NOT ONE – has the courage and prescience to make that a policy goal. No one!
      This puts higher education in a terrible moral bind. Advocating for population-based policy goals that address climate change (and environmental degradation) would be like shooting HE in the head at close range with a shotgun; conversely, advocating for population increases sets the entire sector in **support** of global warming.
      Little wonder, then, why higher education is so Janus faced when it comes to global warming. Advocating for solutions contradicts the sector’s obvious self-interest in maintaining or increasing population levels.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Getting there is one of our great tasks now.

      Increased productivity is one part of it. So might be automation.

      I’m not sure if the burst population bubble will lead us to degrowth.

  2. Glen McGhee says:

    Bryan says: “Teen births have fallen off a cliff, plummeting since 1991 … Older readers will recall social anxiety, even panic over teen motherhood back in the 1980s and 1990s. It looks like we largely solved that problem. Good news.”

    There is no “Good News” about declines in teen births when you consider the underlying decline in teen sex, and the social dynamics driving it.
    Let’s start with page 11 of this CDC Data Survey.
    High school students are engaging in less sexual activity across multiple measures:
    — The percentage who ever had sex declined from 47% in 2011 to 30% in 2021
    — The percentage who had four or more lifetime sexual partners declined from 15% in 2011 to 6% in 2021
    — The percentage who were currently sexually active declined from 34% in 2011 to 21% in 2021
    This indicates that the decline in teen pregnancy rates is indeed driven by a decrease in sexual activity among high school students, not just improved contraceptive use. The data shows a consistent downward trend across all three metrics from 2011 to 2021.
    With a sexual revolution apparently going in reverse — but leaving the stability of marriage as a social institution behind F.O.R.E.V.E.R. — we shouldn’t leave out a few of these other negative factors:
    — increased rates of depression,
    — worsening mental health,
    — and more and more suicide among youth.
    If ANY of this is “good news” then I’m stuck here with you wandering around in the 8th circle of Dantes’ Hell, and its 10 trenches of Malebolge.

  3. sibyledu says:

    It’s hard to tell from the graph, but when I clicked through to the release, I saw that they are estimating 3.59 million births in 2023, which would be the lowest figure since 1979. The post-WWII nadir was 3.14 million in 1973; assuming a constant 2% annual decline, we’d get there around 2030, or in time for the graduating class of 2052 (for traditional-age students).

    There are a lot of factors affecting the college-going population of the future. While births is the easiest thing to predict, I suspect that other factors are going to have more influence. Will we continue to believe, as a society, that higher education is worthy of public investment and support? Will we continue to believe, as individuals, that higher education is a good thing for ourselves and our children? Will we continue to shift the price to individuals, and will they continue to pay it? If the public purpose of the graduating class of 1952 was to outcompete the Soviet Union, and the public purpose of the graduating class of 2002 was to provide a skilled and innovative workforce, what will the nominal public purpose of the graduating class of 2052 be?

    I don’t know that anyone has the answers to those questions. But I also don’t know that we can wait around until we get them.

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