A majority of U.S. households have no children living at home. Increasingly, we are a nation of aging adults. It is no accident. For decades, Americans have been getting married later, remaining single longer. Children are more expensive than ever to raise, so they are postponed or dispensed with altogether by newlyweds accustomed to two incomes.
The child shortage has been made worse by the economic recession that began in 2008. The National Center for Health Statistics has recorded an accumulated drop of 5.7 million births since 2007. Last year, 4 million children were born in the U.S., 9.5 percent fewer than in the year before the recession began.
It is probably no accident that this statistic is close to the nation’s current jobless and foreclosure rates.
What is alarming is that our nation’s fertility rate has been below replacement level (2.1 children per woman) for decades. Unless we catch up, we risk becoming a nation of aging men and women who depend in their later years on even fewer Americans to work and pay taxes.
As the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia noted, “Persistent sub-replacement fertility eventually translates into fewer workers relative to retirees, which puts tremendous strains on public coffers and the economy as a whole.”
W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the project, quoted a recent finding that almost half of the recent run-up of public debt in the West can be attributed to rapid aging over the last 20 years.
According to a Central Intelligence Agency world survey, U.S. fertility rates peaked at 3.8 children per woman in the late 1950s. The 2011 New York Times Almanac noted that U.S. childbirth dropped below replacement level between 1971 and 1999, then ticked up only slightly until the current economic recession.
Even now, the overall U.S. birth rate barely matches replacement value, but only because of the higher fertility of immigrant families. By contrast, native-born Americans have long failed to produce enough children to replace themselves.
The United Nations has long predicted that by mid-century, the world’s population would be shrinking for the first time since the Black Death in the 14th century, but now notes an increase in fertility in the developing world. Unless trends reverse themselves in the rich nations, however, fewer babies will result in deferred retirement as well as shrinking government benefits for aging parents. We are contemplating an American society in which the old are the rule and the young are the exceptions.
David Yount is a Virginia author whose new book is “Celebrating the Single Life: Keys to Successful Living on Your Own.”