Oct 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The cultural factors behind falling fertility rates

Illustration of a downward trending arrow hanging from a baby mobile

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Fertility rates in the U.S. are falling for reasons that go beyond the economic.

Why it matters: The demographic makeup of a country helps decide its future, but it also alters its present.

  • A country with fewer young children is one that will likely be culturally less hospitable to parents, which in turn could reinforce declining fertility rates.

By the numbers: 24.6 million Americans are under the age of 6.

  • That's the same number as in 1962, but whereas in that year, young children made up more than 13% of the population, today they comprise a little more than 7%.

Between the lines: The reasons behind falling fertility rates are many, from delayed or nonexistent marriages to changing life priorities to lack of financial assistance — a factor that won't be helped by the reduced provisions for paid family leave in the latest iteration of President Biden's Build Back Better plan.

  • But another reason is a changing cultural climate around children in many parts of the U.S.

Context: In a recent piece for The Week, Stephanie H. Murray outlined the "cultural weight dangling from the yoke of modern American parenthood," as parents of young children try to navigate a country that seems increasingly unsympathetic to their offspring.

  • As young children become rarer, the burden of caring for them becomes heavier — and thanks to the U.S.'s paltry family support system, that burden is largely borne by the parents themselves.
  • In another recent article, the writer Suzy Weiss profiled members of Gen Z who are so dedicated to the childless life — whether out of personal preference or concern about a climate apocalypse — that they've decided to undergo sterilization.

Our thought bubble: In any normally functioning market, a shortage of something will induce efforts to increase demand — but that only happens if people actually want the good in question.

  • That increasingly doesn't seem to be the case in much of the U.S., and especially among young people in their prime childbearing years.
  • Gen Z has a sense that “humans were a mistake," Clay Routledge, an existential psychologist at North Dakota State University, told Weiss.

The bottom line: Politics and economics matter to fertility, but cultural factors may outweigh it all.

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