Last week, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that America’s birthrate reached a historic low in 2017, falling to 60.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. For a population in the developed world to replace itself, the average woman needs to have around 2.1 children. In the United States, where fertility has been below replacement for about a decade, the average woman now has 1.77.
Several commentators have described the plunge as a mystery, particularly since we’re in a period of economic growth. Some on the right have, absurdly, blamed the shrinking birthrate on abortion, even though abortion rates are also as low as they’ve been since Roe v. Wade was decided. More thoughtful conservatives, like National Review’s David French, speculated that the baby bust could be a sign of the same sort of sweeping despair that has been linked to America’s decreasing life expectancy.
I have another theory. Perhaps the United States is becoming more like the rest of the industrialized world, where declining birthrates are correlated with a lack of support for working mothers.
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Outside the United States, the pattern is pretty clear. Developed countries that prioritize gender equality – including Sweden, Norway and France – have higher fertility rates than those that don’t. The world’s lowest fertility rates are in countries that are economically developed but socially conservative, where women have professional opportunities but must shoulder most of the burdens of domestic life. (With its progressive reputation and low birthrate, Germany might seem, on the surface, like an exception, but the country has a tradition of stigmatizing mothers who work outside the home.)
Most women seem to want both jobs and children, and when they’re forced to choose, some will forgo parenthood or have only one child. In a 2000 paper, Australian demographer Peter McDonald theorized that if women have educational and employment opportunities nearly equal to those of men, “but these opportunities are severely curtailed by having children, then, on average, women will restrict the number of children that they have to an extent which leaves fertility at a precariously low, long-term level.”
Livia Oláh, a demographer at Stockholm University, has studied how gender equality affects choices about having children at the family level. She found that in Sweden, women were more likely to have a second child if their male partner took paternity leave with their first child, a proxy for his willingness to share the work of parenting. In Hungary, she told me, couples that shared housework equally had a higher probability of having a second kid. Women “want structures and policies that make it possible for them to combine family life – housework and child care – with career,” she said.
This correlation between feminist social policy and higher fertility is widely recognized throughout the world; as David Willetts, a former Tory minister in the United Kingdom, once put it, “feminism is the new natalism.” The link is one reason that Japan, where the fertility rate is around 1.4 children per woman, has undertaken “womenomics,” a broad – if only mildly successful – government initiative to promote gender equality.
In the past, the major exception to the rule about pro-women policies and higher fertility was the United States. The American government does next to nothing for working parents, yet fertility rates, after reaching a low of around 1.7 children per woman in 1976, rose over the next 30 years, even as Europe’s fertility fell. There were several reasons for this, including substantial levels of Hispanic immigration, a high teen birthrate and, some speculated, America’s exceptional religiosity.
Since then, however, the teen birthrate in the United States has fallen to an all-time low, Americans have become less religious, Hispanic immigration has slowed, and Hispanic fertility rates have declined. At the same time, pressures on working parents have only grown. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that more mothers were staying at home with their kids than at any time in the last two decades, an increase researchers ascribed in part to the rising cost of child care.
Right now, America’s fertility rate is still pretty high compared to most European countries; it’s lower than France or Sweden but roughly in line with other countries in Scandinavia. If my theory is right, though, it will keep falling unless America invests in paid family leave and subsidized, high-quality child care, while birthrates in France and Scandinavia remain stable.
Some liberals might wonder why we should worry about birthrates at all. Anxiety about demographic decline has a bad odor; historically it’s been a preoccupation of people panicked by changing gender roles and the waning racial advantage of particular groups. But if a shrinking number of workers must support a growing elderly population, even our threadbare social safety net will be strained. An obvious solution is increased immigration, but declining native-born populations tend to react to large influxes of immigrants with terrifying xenophobic backlashes.
None of this, obviously, is a reason to pressure women into having more kids than they want. (Even if it weren’t immoral, it would be counterproductive, given the link, in developed countries, between higher birthrates and women’s rights.) But survey data shows that women actually desire more kids than they’re having. As Lyman Stone wrote in The New York Times, the “gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”
Our culture is failing to support women in creating the lives they want, and that failure threatens the future. One lesson of cratering fertility rates is that in the modern world, patriarchy is maladaptive.