The US experienced plunging birth rates during the economically troubled decades of the 1930s and 1970s. That’s not an unlikely scenario. Historically, birth rates tend to rise during good economic times, and decline in weaker ones. In recent years, birth rates have been on the decline. 2017 had the fewest births in 30 years, yet according to all official statistics the economy is booming.
Many, including me, have long maintained that the official statistics are painting a more optimistic picture of the economy than what’s really happening. The recent decline in births and birth rates adds a big hunk of credibility to that claim. If the economy is so good, why aren’t more people having babies?
The 2017 Birth Statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), total births in the US fell to 3,855,500 in 2017, compared to nearly 4 million in 2010.
To put that in perspective, during the post-World War II baby boom of the 1950s in the early 1960s, the number of births in the country exceeded 4 million consistently. The peak was reached in 1957 at 4.3 million-plus.
As recently as 1970, there were 3,731,386 births. But the population of the country that year was just over 203 million. The 3,855,500 births in 2017 were in a population of 325 million. Put another way, 2017 saw only slightly more births than 1970, despite a 60% increase in the total population of the country.
This points to another dilemma. Again, according to the CDC, the birth rate fell to 1,765.5 births per 1,000 women in 2017. To put that in perspective, that number needs to be 2,100 per 1,000 women, just to maintain the current population. Based on the current birth rate, the domestic population isn’t even replacing itself. If it weren’t for immigration, the US population would be in decline.
According to the CDC the number of births in 2017 was the lowest in 30 years, going all the way back to 1987 when 3,829,000 babies were born. The number rose in 1988, and held steady at near or just above the 4 million mark through 2009, when it began a steady decline through 2017.
The 2017 Economic Statistics
According to the official statisticians, 2017 was a strong year in the economy. The “evidence” is clear from the following statistics:
- The economy grew by 2.3%.
- Unemployment stood at 4.1% by the end of 2017.
- As measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the stock market rose by 25% for the year.
In fact, statistically speaking, 2017 was the eighth straight year of steady economic growth, following the bottom of the Great Recession in 2009. The growth statistics in each year are roughly consistent with 2017.
Yet the birth rates tell a story of slight but steady decline. The CDC report also disclosed the following:
- 2010, 3,999,386
- 2011, 3,953,590
- 2012, 3,952,841
- 2013, 3,932,181
- 2014, 3,988,076
- 2015, 3,978,497
- 2016, 3,945,785
- 2017, 3,855,500
Now these numbers don’t represent a collapse in the birth rate, but rather a slow, steady decline. But according to the economic numbers that have been flowing out of official sources, we’re in something of a prolonged economic boom. Economic booms are typically accompanied by a rise in births, not stagnation or decline.
The statistics on housing sales are much more consistent with the decline in birth rates than with the official narrative of steady economic growth. Consider the following:
- In 2005, sales of new homes reached 1,283,000. By 2017, there were just 614,000 – a decline of slightly more than 50%.
- In 2005, sales of existing houses reached 7.08 million. By 2017, there were just 5.67 million – a decline of about 20%.
It’s worth noting that both statistics come on the heels of an eight-year economic expansion. Yet in that time, housing sales haven’t come close to their pre-recession peak levels.
In combination, the decline in both births and housing sales since before the recession are painting a very different picture of what’s going on in the economy. We’ve long since accepted the reality that the stock market has detached itself from the real economy. But is it also possible the official statistics have as well?
The Alternative Explanations to the Falling Birth Rates
From what I’ve read and heard, the hollowed-out economy is the most common reason cited for the decline in birth rates. It’s also being used to explain the increase in the number of Millennial’s living with their parents, not buying houses, not advancing in their careers, and not marrying.
Alternate explanations include addiction to the social media, student loan debt, fear of accusations of “inappropriate behavior” against males, and various iterations of the extended adolescence argument.
I think there’s some merit in all those explanations. But as a sociology professor I had in college once declared “economics is the dominant societal norm in our culture, the one that has the most pervasive effect on everything”.
The combination of weak employment prospects and large student loan debts is crippling a large swath of an entire generation. And if people in their 20s and 30s are unable to move forward in life, our entire culture suffers.
One of the big problems we have in the bigger picture is the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. If you’re well-established in your life, you might look at younger adults and dismiss them with the “they just need to grow up” narrative.
I don’t think it’s that simple. When I was in my 20s and 30s, my own generation was experiencing the problems of becoming an adult in a society that favored the youth culture. That is, immaturity over responsibility. But the economy was stronger then, jobs were more plentiful – as were promotions, and housing and everything else was less expensive. And though healthcare was already becoming a problem, it hadn’t yet reached the magnitude we see today.
I think it really is worse for today’s young people. And it isn’t just young people who are affected.
If it Feels as if the Recession Never Ended in Your World it’s Not Your Imagination
Despite the official happy statistics, millions of Americans are at least vaguely aware that something is fundamentally wrong with the economy. Sure, the unemployment rate may be hovering around an enviable 4%, but it seems to be masking deeper issues.
For example, how many of the 96% who are employed are working part-time, contract, or in the gig economy? In each situation, income is uncertain, and benefits are missing. Then there’s the question of the millions of people who simply stopped looking for work. We can probably presume many of them are working in some area of the underground economy.
Unfortunately, all these people – who number in the tens of millions – seem to be invisible in official economic statistics. Yet they’re having a very real effect on the actual state of the economy. For example, because tens of millions of people are teetering on the economic edge, fewer babies are being born, fewer houses are being sold, and fewer cars are being purchased.
All that impairs the general economy, statistics be damned. It at least partially explains why the economy no longer seems to be big enough to accommodate both brick-and-mortar retail and online sales. Why 78% of American households live paycheck-to-paycheck. And as businesses function on life support, they’re more likely to avoid promoting prime age workers, or to prematurely lay off workers over 50, imperiling their retirements.
Maybe younger people do need to step up. But we have to seriously consider what options are available to step up into. Especially when they may be saddled with large student loan debts and/or unable to afford health insurance. And let’s not forget the relentless price spiral that the officialdom similarly refuse to acknowledge to exist.
In one way or another, we were all at least a little messed up when we were in our 20s and 30s. It’s called immaturity. But many of us were born into more forgiving times, when you could screw up for a while, but eventually find your place in life.
As the economy continues to hollow out, that outcome is becoming increasingly unlikely. And in one way or another, we’re all paying a price for that.