The American population continues to change: fewer children, shorter lifespans

America’s population continues to change.  This demographic transformation has powerful implications for higher education’s future.

Let me share some recent news and research.

First, the number of American births continues to decline, according to a new Centers for Disease Control report.

3,791,712 births were registered in the United States, down 2% (or 63,788) from 2017. This is the fourth year that the number of births has declined following an increase in 2014. Before that year, the number of births declined steadily from 2007 through 2013…

This isn’t a dramatic decline, just a steady one:

birth rates US 2010-2018_CDC

The nation’s fertility rate is now “a record low rate for the nation.”  It dropped for nearly every age, especially younger women:

birth rates by mother age_1990-2018_CDC

Note the ongoing collapse of teen pregnancies.  That’s a major achievement.

The CDC report has a lot more data and ways of cutting the data.  Dive in if you’d like more than what I’ve shared so far.  In the meantime remember that this patterns of lowering childbirth is pretty universal among developed nations.

Second, American lifespans have continued to tick downwards, according to new research by Steven H. Woolf and Heidi Schoomaker.  This is unusual, given recent history (“Between 1959 and 2016, US life expectancy increased by almost 10 years, from 69.9 years in 1959 to 78.9 years in 2016, with the fastest increase (highest APC) occurring during 1969-1979”), but fits the past few years.  This trend now hits nearly all ages and races, with greater incidence for men than women.

Geographically, this grim trend is distributed very unevenly:

death rates by state 2019

The largest relative increases in midlife mortality rates occurred in New England (New Hampshire, 23.3%; Maine, 20.7%; Vermont, 19.9%) and the Ohio Valley (West Virginia, 23.0%; Ohio, 21.6%; Indiana, 14.8%; Kentucky, 14.7%).

All races are now being hit.  There are two differentiating factors, education and economics:

A growing body of evidence… indicates that the decline in US life expectancy and mortality risks have been greater among individuals with limited education (eg, less than high school) and income.  The gradient in life expectancy based on income has also widened over time, with outcomes at the lower end of the distribution explaining much of the US disadvantage relative to other countries.

No one immediate cause of death leads off in this research.  Many causes are in play, from disease to drugs, alcohol, obesity, “[d]eficiencies in the health care system,” and suicide.

causes of deaths broken down by age

So what does all of this mean for higher education?

I’ve been writing about the impact of demographics on academia for a while and don’t want to repeat myself, but will draw out some key points here, at some risk of repetition.

  1. As the K-12 population keeps declining, institutions serving traditional-age students (18-22 years old) will have to compete much harder, pivot, or shrink, if not merge or close.
  2. American colleges and universities have successfully marketed themselves to international students, until 2016.  Is it time for academia to ramp up its political engagement on this score?
  3. Policies aimed at increasing childbirth usually don’t do much, but that doesn’t mean people won’t try.  Let’s look to culturally conservative areas, as well as the states suffering death spikes, for local examples.
  4. If pro-natalist political and cultural movements appear and if they gain actual traction, how should higher education respond?  We know that education plays a vital role in reducing childbirth numbers; perhaps such movements will target colleges and universities.  This could represent another way for higher ed to be politicized.
  5. Rising death rates could drive political instability, which might lead to policies or attitudes more detrimental to higher ed than what we have now.  Especially if people perceive a link between mortality and education.
  6. Rising death rates could also elicit a public health crisis, in which case higher ed might play a leading role in terms of research, supporting public health, and developing new community leaders.
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1 Response to The American population continues to change: fewer children, shorter lifespans

  1. Ted Major says:

    That’s an interesting chart showing the increase in mortality, it seems to show raw numbers rather than mortality rates. I wonder what it would look like adjusted for population? See, for example, Florida and Alabama. Florida has a higher number of excess deaths, but it also has a much higher population than Alabama. How would population adjustment change the emphasis of the map?

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