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Demographic Tidal Wave

11:15 AM, Oct 12, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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It's demographics time again! Last week, the CDC released its preliminary birth data for 2011. Much of the analysis focused on the raw number of births, which declined for the fourth straight year. America's general fertility rate is now the lowest it's ever been. Which is not great news.


In the press and the blogs, people focused on the correlation between the birth rate and the Great Recession. And there's a lot to that. Economics is an important driver of fertility. But there's more going on here, and while this birth data may seem highly abstract, when you drill down into the numbers you see a very particular story about what American culture is like at this moment.

So indulge me for a moment while we take a brief walking tour.

As I said, our general fertility rate (that is, the number of births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44) is now the lowest it's been in American history. But let's examine that decline in its component parts.

The first part of the story is the fertility rate by age. The fertility rate for women in their 30s and older remained basically constant—the Great Recession hasn't stopped older women from having children. The big declines have come among women in their 20s. This trend of delaying childbirth is perfectly consistent with what we've seen in America since the late 1960s: As more people began attending college (and then graduate school), the average age of first marriage rose. As women (and men) waited longer to get married, they waited longer to have children, too. So the average age of women's first birth rose in tandem.

The recession may be exacerbating this trend—causing women to wait longer before having children—but it didn't create it.

The other group to see big fertility declines was teenagers: The teenage birth rate dropped 8 percent from 2010. That's a good thing, right? And what's more, teen births have been dropping steadily (by more than 3 percent every year) for 20 years. That's a promising sign because it means that the do-anything culture of the 1970s—when America really went off the rails sociologically—may be finally on the wane.

Coupled with the teen decline is a decline in the birth rate for unmarried women. In 2011, out-of-wedlock births dropped for the third straight year. This is also a good thing—and unexpected, too. Because between 2002 and 2007, the rate of out-of-wedlock births rose by 19 percent. So we’ve made some gains in this category, too.

When you look at the numbers by race, you see yet another component of our fertility dynamics. Among non-Hispanic white women, the fertility rate remained roughly unchanged last year. The big drop came among Hispanic women. This development is probably the result of two phenomena: (1) The Great Recession put the brakes on illegal immigration from Mexico and South America. Over the last two decades, there immigrants have accounted for a disproportionate share of American fertility, so any decline in immigration is going to result in a decline in our overall fertility numbers. (2) One of the remarkable aspects of non-native Hispanic fertility is that our Hispanic immigrants arrive with very high fertility rates—but they regress to the native average very quickly.

So in that sense, the decline of our Hispanic fertility rate that we see in the new data is probably the beginning of a larger trend which we'll continue to see as immigration continues to slow and the Hispanic immigrants who remain in America continue to move toward the mean.

Finally, buried deep in the report is the most telling number of all: In the last year the number of "first" births dropped to the lowest level ever recorded in America. What does that mean? It means that we're slowly bifurcating into a country where there are two kinds of adults: people who have children, and people who do not. The people who have children are inclined to have seconds and thirds. But for the first time in our nation's history, we're growing a sizable cohort of adults who remain childless their entire lives.

And a sea change like that never happens without consequences.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His book on fertility and demographics, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, will be published in January 2013 by Encounter. 

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