The decline in fertility in the west is well documented and is a cause for concern. One reason for this decline is the male fertility crisis, where sperm counts have fallen by 54% in four decades. The reasons for the crisis seem to fall into two categories:
- Lifestyle factors: diet, obesity rates, exercise, stress factors, drinking and smoking habits all play a part
- Environmental factors: it is likely that fertility-affecting chemicals, known as hormone-disruptors in the environment are playing a significant role.
In the US this problem is also compounded by economic factors.
There was no COVID baby boom in the US
The idea that Americans would spend their time in the COVID-19 lockdowns making babies was a story designed to make us all feel good. The reality is that COVID brought an extra depth of chill to an already freezing economic wind in the US. There are between 300,000 to 500,000 FEWER births expected in 2021 compared to 2019 according to The Brookings Institute in Washington D.C. This US socio-economic research group said, “A key element of our forecast for declining births was based on our empirical analysis that found that a 1%-point increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a 1% drop in the birth rate.”
They applied that estimated relationship to the expectation of a 7% – 10% increase in the unemployment rate, which is in line with Federal Reserve expectations.
The Brooking Institute brings two other negative factors to our attention:
- There may be a social anxiety factor to take into account: based on the experience of the Spanish Flu (1918) this suggests that there could be a birth decline 9 months to 1 year after a spike in death rates. This would equate to a further reduction of around 100,000 births in 2021/2022.
- Americans are having less sex: in a recent survey conducted by the Kinsey Institute, almost half of US adults surveyed have reported a decline in their sex lives.
COVID-19 may have just exacerbated a long-term issue that underlies the trend to childlessness.
The US economy
The cost of living in the US rises inexorably, while wages have stagnated in the US since the mid-1970s. In terms of wages, the Biden Administration recently threw in the towel on a $15 per hour minimum wage. This means that the minimum wage will remain at $7.25. However, if the standard for minimum wages had kept pace with overall income growth in the American economy since 1968, the minimum wage would now be $21.16 per hour.
Quite simply, expecting working Americans to bring up families on 1950s wages is not realistic. At the same time the minimum cost of bringing up a child to the age of 17 years has risen from $165,000 in 2000 to $233,000 in 2021. These are US government statistics and although they are used here demonstrate the significant increase in costs, they are only half the story. Firstly, they don’t take into account healthcare, another $5,000 or so per year or education, a good college/school is $50,000 per year!
Cost of raising a child in the US
The fact is that fewer and fewer people are making this kind of money in the US and so fewer and fewer couples are having children. This is a problem, which is further compounded by the lack of public provision for childcare in the US. In every other rich country and even many poorer ones, childcare is offered publicly. Citizens of those countries have access to daycare, community creches or other kinds of supporting institutions, they are just a fact of life. Not only that, but childcare basics like milk, diapers and clothes are often subsidized generously. Not in the US, though. The US offers no support whatsoever to aspiring families, so it’s no surprise that there are fewer and fewer of them.
The future for the US
Quite simply, without children, the US is heading to ‘God’s waiting room’ and not even slowly. The birth rate is currently 1.7, meaning that the death rate now exceeds the birth rate. Without incentivizing the citizens to procreate, it is likely to stay that way for decades. The population demographics will shift dramatically to be top heavy with old people, who will be forced to work for long into old age to sustain themselves, as no taxes will be raised from non-existent younger workers.
It is ironic that, given the anti-immigration bias from some quarters in the US, that immigration provides one of the few potential remedies to the situation. Immigrants also buck the childlessness trend, exceeding the 1.7 birth rate, the rate for immigrant mothers is 2.1, although this is not expected to make too much difference to the overall birth rate.
A change of perspective for young people who want children
Young people who wish to have children in the US today are, out of necessity, fueling the rise of alternative living arrangements. This is a way of making economic sense of the situation by extending families, breaking away from the traditional US nuclear family model. This can be achieved by involving extended family relatives such as aunts and uncles and moving to be close to parents or even moving in with them.
Another option is to share with other couples in a form of communal living. For instance, having two or three couples living under one roof is a viable mechanism to split the burdens of childcare and realize at least some economies of scale and scope. It is a fact that societies tend to revert to extended family living when nuclear family lifestyles become unaffordable.
But let’s be honest here. Falling fertility rates are a good sign that a society has a major problem. If Americans do not have enough confidence that their society can provide a better tomorrow and are not prepared to back that confidence by having children who will be part of that tomorrow, then the American Dream is over. And it will not be remedied by young people making the best of having children no matter how ingenious they are. It will require government actions, similar to what is taking place in other countries, to reinstill that missing confidence and to incentivize young Americans to envisage a bright future with their potential children.