New CDC birth data out Wednesday confirm that the U.S. birthrate dropped one percent to reach an all-time low in 2011, extending the downward trend begun with the recession in 2008. Put down your knee-jerk fears about smaller population. This drop is a good sign, foretelling not a diminished but a strengthened workforce down the line.
Historic lows make headlines, but the deep story here is the time-lag ripple effect of delay that this year’s data demonstrate. The big birthrate declines we’ve seen since the recent high in 2007 (down nine percent overall) have been sharpest among teens ages 15 to 19 (a 25 percent drop over the four years) and to young women ages 20 to 24 (down 19 percent). Both of those age bands hit historic lows in 2011. We’re talking framework change here.
On the other hand, rates among women ages 25 to 29 have fallen a much smaller nine percent since 2007; those among women ages 30 to 34 fell four percent between 2007 and 2010 and held steady in 2011; and those among women ages 35 to 39 also fell four percent between 2007 and 2010, but rose three precent in 2011. Rates among women ages 40 to 44 fell: they’d been rising steadily since 1981, and rose another seven percent between 2007 and 2011.
What we’re seeing here looks not so much like a big decline in the number of women who have kids over their lifetimes, or even necessarily in the number of kids they have, as like the time-lag effect of postponement. The big switch in the timing of when women have children was underway long before the recession of 2007 (see this CCF fact sheet), but the recession intensified it. We can see that in the chart below, in the rising birthrates for women ages 30 to 44, and the falling rates for women ages 15 to 29.
Already some women who stayed on the maternity sidelines in their thirties in the early part of this decline have jumped back into the game (visible in the rises among women 35 and older). Though the increases to date are not yet sizable, the scene is set for a flood of later mothers down the line. The overall rate of decline was lower than in the three previous years, suggesting that an overall upturn may be on the way in the next year or so. But though the recession officially ended in 2009, younger women’s rates are still dropping drastically in 2011 (down 8 percent from 2010). These indicators confirm that the recovery still needs to gain traction before people trust it with their families. They also tell us that the national birth timing dynamic is changing fast.
In their 25 percent rate plunge in just four years, young women today are enacting a sped-up version of the trend to delaying kids that’s been growing since the introduction of hormonal birth control, in 1960. Like millions of women before them, these citizens are refraining from having a first child early on (first births were also at an all time low in 2011), or sometimes a second, and choosing instead to invest in their educations (high school completion and college entry levels are up since 2007) and to build up their credentials at work. They may not be changing the number of kids they’ll have overall by much, but they are changing the economic circumstances into which those kids will arrive, for the better. Not all recession effects are problematic.
This sped-up delay effect has at least three overlapping causes. Most obvious is the recession/slow recovery (recessions are historically powerful contraception — before the Pill, the lowest recorded birth rate occurred in 1936). If people don’t feel they can afford kids, they become more vigilant about controlling fertility. A second cause lies in recent improvements in birth control methods and access, which make it easier to be vigilant.