Is America becoming Europe? Five US birth rate myths

baby Is America in a baby bust?

Is the US birth rate really on the decline? A look at five myths about the country's population problems.

The release of a Pew study saying American birth rates have hit a new low kicked off a spirited discussion about the future of the country.

But lost somewhere in the debate were a few basic facts about why the rates dropped and what happens next. Below, a look at five myths of America's declining fertility rate.

The decline is sustained and serious

Before getting too upset about these numbers, it's worth taking a look at how accurate they are.

"These kinds of forecasts have turned out to be wrong generation after generation," says Steven Bronars, a senior economist at Welch Consulting.

In an article on his personal blog, he noted two main factors that could cloud the accuracy of the numbers. One is a shift in demographics: the birth rate in the headlines averages the number of children born to women aged 15-44 per year. According to Bronars, there are large numbers of women at both ends of the age spectrum. Current trends in childbirth mean these women are less likely to have children this year than women in the middle, and as a result the number seems lower.

"The changing distribution of the US population is going to drive down the fertility rate in a way that's misleading," Bronar says.

The total fertility rate, on the other hand, looks at the average number of children women will have over their lifetimes - how many children a 19 year old will have, rather than how many she had this year. That produces a much more positive number, as Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau points out on his website.

More important is the fact that the decline coincides with the falling economy. So the numbers may not have dropped for good - perhaps they've just been delayed while women wait for economic futures to improve.

"Women have delayed childbirth for years now, and that has accelerated a bit since the downturn, since the recession in the last four years or so," says Andrew Cherlin, professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

"It's too early to tell whether women are going to have fewer children or they're just delaying childbirth longer."

The American economy will be crippled

A fear of low fertility is that the lack of American babies will turn into a lack of American adults - adults needed to fuel the economy, pay into social security, and provide goods and services (especially services) for an ageing population.

Countries like Japan have been crippled by an ageing population and fewer young people to care for them.

Elderly people walk down a busy street Experts doubt America will age as rapidly as Japan

But the US is in an enviable position. "Small changes in our own birth rates can be easily offset by changes in our immigration policy," says Bronars.

"From my point of view as an economist, there's a certain demand for workers and labour services, there are a lot of ways in which that demand can be satisfied.

"One is having children here, educating and training them and producing the next generation of workers. The other is to make up the difference by importing the workers from overseas who have the skills we're looking for."

While Japan has few immigrants, the US is still a top destination for those looking to have a better life. A sensible immigration policy, says Bronars, could help make up for a population on the decline.

Working women are to blame

At one point it was true that women pursued a career at the expense of marriage and families.

"The first group of women who really went to school [university] in bulk said: 'I'm going to put my career first and I'm going to have a great career'," says Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at Ohio State University.

He speculates that "it got to the point that it was the end of their child-bearing years and they realised they weren't married and wound up being childless".

But that paradigm no longer holds true.

"That seems to have reversed starting in the mid- to late 1990s," says Prof Weinberg, and now fertility among educated American women is increasing.

Women with a college degree or more make up about 20-30% of the women of child-bearing age, and while some may be delaying childbirth, they're having more children now than ever before.

Prof Weinberg found that the rate of highly educated women having children rose by about 5% between 1998 and 2008.

The US has become too comfortable

Once upon a time, children were currency. More kids meant more hands to help on the farm, work in the house or bring in an income.

But as nations became more developed, there was less economic need for bigger families, which - so the conventional wisdom says - depressed the birth rate. It's reasonable to assume that in a time of technological advancements and modern living, convenience and luxury, having children is less desirable.

Highlights from the Pew study

  • The US birth rate declined 8% from 2007 to 2010
  • In that period, births to us US-born women declined by 6%, while births to immigrant women declined by 14%
  • In 2010, there were 4m live births in America. By 2011, that number was estimated to be 3.95m

But that's not quite what's happening.

A study by the University of Pennsylvania's population studies centre found that developed nations like South Korea and the Czech Republic scored high on development but low on fertility. But countries that rated even higher on the development index had higher birth rates.

"Australia, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg - in most of these countries we had an increase in fertility over time," says Hans-Peter Kohler, research associate at the centre.

Mr Kohler and his colleagues speculate that as nations become more developed, they put in place better systems to help families care for children, like paternity care and more equitable work spaces. So it's possible that America needs to become more, not less, progressive in order to raise the rates.

The US is turning into Europe

Experts deny that the US is destined to have as low a birth rate as places like Italy (1.41 children born per woman) and Germany (1.4, according to the World Bank). The current rate in the US is closest to the UK, both around 1.9 children per woman.

"Our problems are similar to the problems of the UK, no better, no worse, except that I think our fertility rate will rebound as the economy gets better," says Prof Cherlin. "Immigration, coupled with America's traditionally robust birth rate, means America won't be ageing quickly anytime soon."

But even Europe sometimes gets too much grief.

"There have been these dire reports about our decreasing fertility rates since the Cold War baby boom," says Stijn Hoorens, a researcher at RAND Europe. But his studies show that in the past 10 years, that trend reversed.

"We kept an eye on statistics and it turns out that fertility rates have somewhat recovered in Europe between 2000 and 2008."

Of course, those numbers have dipped as the global recession hit Europe - but could recover as the economy does.

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