A few decades ago, parents of big families found themselves getting lectured for littering the planet with their offspring.
Global warming hysteria, then climate change fears convinced some ethicists that having a large brood was unethical, almost immoral, and many adopted this view. The internet is awash in articles wondering if it’s still okay to bring children into the world who will supposedly face a dystopian future.
Now though, experts are starting to murmur about a new problem, the Western world’s plummeting birth rate.
The U.S. fertility rate has dropped by about 2% per year since 2014, hitting record lows in 2020, 2019, and 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a particularly potent blow, sinking the fertility rate by about 4% in 2020. It bounced back slightly last year, rising by 1%, likely because people delayed having children in the thick of the pandemic.
The total fertility rate has dropped from 3.77 average children per woman in 1957 at the height of the post-war baby boom to just 1.66 average children in 2021, according to the CDC. In 2020, the rate dipped even lower to 1.64 children per woman, a record low since the government began tracking the rate in the 1930s.
Now, the U.S. is nowhere near “replacement-level fertility,” or 2.1 children per woman.
Billionaire and futurist Elon Musk brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation this year, tweeting that “a collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far.”
“Some people think that having fewer kids is better for the environment. It’s total nonsense. The environment is going to be fine, the environment is going to be fine even if we doubled the size of the humans,” Musk said in May.
USA birth rate has been below min sustainable levels for ~50 years pic.twitter.com/v5PSLbvEAE
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 24, 2022
“At least maintain our numbers,” the Tesla CEO said. “We don’t necessarily need to grow dramatically, but [at] least let’s not gradually dwindle away until civilization ends with all of us in adult diapers, in a whimper.”
“I hope you have big families and congrats to those who already do!” Musk said.
Musk’s warnings are a far cry from more than a century of dire warnings about overpopulation.
The first economist to raise the alarm about overpopulation was English scholar Thomas Malthus, who died in 1834. Malthus posited that population growth would always end up outpacing food production, keeping a utopian society out of reach.
More than 100 years later in 1968, American biologist Paul Ehrlich dropped his book “The Population Bomb,” which would turn out to be one of the most influential — and alarming — books of the last century.
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” the first sentence thuds. “In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
After the book took off, the number of people who wanted large families dropped precipitously, falling from 70% to 52% from 1967 to 1971, according to Gallup.
In the 1990s, the current bogeyman appeared, climate change.
However, some climate scientists have declared climate change isn’t the crisis situation we’re being told it is. Other climate scientists say having fewer children won’t solve the problem of a rapidly warming earth quickly enough anyway, apparently reluctant to tell people who have that “child-shaped hole” in their heart that they shouldn’t have children.
Now with the U.S. fertility rate in sharp decline, experts warn an economic slump could be around the corner.
Conceptions dropped just before the last three economic recessions, according to a study by University of Notre Dame researchers.
Many factors are at play besides climate change. More women opt to have children later in life as they focus on their career in their 20s. Many couples also find it more difficult to make ends meet now than in previous decades, prompting them to delay having children until they are more financially stable. More families find today that they need two incomes to pay their bills, which leaves them facing sky-high child care costs.
Meanwhile, an aging population threatens to hurt the economy in the long term. With fewer younger Americans in the workforce paying the costs of caring for older Americans, economic conditions could decline sharply over the next several decades.
“We have an aging population. People might say, ‘So?’” said Pamela Smock, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.
Smock gave the example of “Social Security, a program designed to financially help support our older population.”
“Fewer working-age adults, who are paying for Social Security, does not bode well for the Social Security program and the financial security of our older population,” she said.
So far, the U.S. has fared better than other places with falling birth rates such Japan and many European countries. This is partly thanks to immigration, which so far has kept the U.S. population from declining.
One country in particular is already worried about not having enough people to support its mammoth economy.
China’s population decline was expected to start in 2027. Last week though, Yang Wenzhuang, the head of population for China’s National Health Commission, said the nation’s population is on track to get smaller before 2025, according to a state-run news outlet.
In 2016, China scrapped its infamous decades-old one-child policy and started allowing couples to have two children. When the move failed to boost the fertility rate, China announced last year that families may now have three children.
“But who wants to have three kids? Young people could have two kids at most. The fundamental issue is living costs are too high and life pressures are too huge,” said Hao Zhou, a senior economist at Commerzbank.
A ray of hope in the U.S. is that lots of Americans still want big families.
In fact, about a third more Americans want three or more children now than in 2007 when the economy was barreling into the Great Recession.
If Americans’ desire to bring more children into the world were to match the outcome over the next decade, the U.S. would avoid seeing its population shrink.
Given the current trend though, the country may see a lot of quiet playgrounds instead.