Demographic update: American births continue to decline

Bryan Alexander 2024-04-27

How are demographics changing, and what does that transformation suggest about the future?

Recently the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published new data on American birthrates. While the results are not surprising to people who follow the topic, they are very useful.

The first and major takeaway is that the number of children we have continues to decline.

American birthrates 2000-2023_CDC

Note that I’m referring to two numbers here: the absolute number of births and also the number of children per 1,000 women. We’re having fewer children, in other words, and fewer women are having them.  The peak was in 2007.  Things slid down afterwards, starting with the Great Recession (this is where Nathan Grawe’s demographic cliff comes in), really dropping for COVID’s first year, ticking up a little right after, then following the overall downward trend.  Which brings us to the latest item: “The total fertility rate was 1,616.5 births per 1,000 women in 2023, a decline of 2% from 2022.”  That’s about 1.62 per woman.

CDC identifies some interesting if slight differences between racial groups:

The provisional number of births declined 5% for American Indian and Alaska Native women, 4% for Black women, 3% for White women, and 2% for Asian women from 2022 to 2023. Births rose 1% for Hispanic women and were essentially unchanged for Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander women…

I’ve written about what this means before – on this blog, in articles, in a book – so I’ll briefly summarize here what I see as the implications.

Generally speaking, America’s population is pointing towards contraction.  Listen carefully to the CDC’s observation:

The total fertility rate in 2023 remained below replacement—the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself (2,100 births per 1,000 women). The rate has generally been below replacement since 1971 and consistently below replacement since 2007…

“Below replacement.”  That means the population will shrink.  This is what Japan and South Korea, among others, are going through now.  So why is America’s population still growing?  Partly it’s the people already in the mix, but the main reason is immigration.  Immigration brings a lot of folks, and they tend to be younger. If we were to Trump the borders shut and end immigration tomorrow, fairly quickly our total numbers would start to dwindle, incrementally yet steadily.  This demographic fact underpins our fractious immigration politics.

Declining birthrates is a long-running trend, too.  Note that “below replacement since 1971.”  This demographic trend is a condition of modernity, in my view.  That is, once a society goes through industrialism and beyond, building up enough wealth, improving health care and public health, then giving women more access to education, jobs, and reproductive control, your fertility rate falls.

There are all kinds of civic implications to this.  The flipside of fewer children is older folks living longer, so there’s the growing support problem inherent in that dynamic. There’s the issue of having enough workers to keep the whole system going, even after productivity improvements. I wonder about national identity, especially for a youth-crazed culture like America’s.

There is pushback to this, unsurprisingly, as some people call out for more births.  Usually any resulting efforts flop, but that shouldn’t mean we won’t see more.  Already some Americans champion neonatalism.  As I’ve said, this could become a major national debate.

In case that sounds too grim, let me cheer you up with a hilarious Danish pro-childbirth ad campaign:

Back to the point: what does this trend (demographic transition, not Danish media) mean for higher education?  Clearly the trend pinches the K-12 pipeline for traditional-age undergraduates, which increases competition between institutions serving that population.  It might incentivize colleges and universities to seek more from other populations, like adult, online, and international would-be students.  Failing such a successful transition, we may expect academic programs to shrink and institutions to merge or shut down.

I do wonder if we’ll see more academics call for more births.  I’m not seeing a lot of this yet, but we might expect some professor or administrator to take up a neonatalist position for the reasons just cited.

Let me conclude by noting one additional feature in the CDC report, which seems weirdly unremarked upon, but for me stands as a clear sign of progress.  Teen births have fallen off a cliff, plummeting since 1991:

American teen birthrates 1991-2023 _CDC

They’re kind of leveling off now, but wow!  From the 90s to around 30, from nearly 40 to around 5. Older readers will recall social anxiety, even panic over teen motherhood back in the 1980s and 1990s.  It looks like we largely solved that problem.  Good news.

What might that mean for higher education?  More teen women will have a better chance at post-secondary schooling, primarily.

To sum up: nothing shocking in this report.  America’s birthdate, like that of every society which has gone through modernity, is shrinking.  This shapes our future powerfully.