The Baby Bust: let’s reformulate our thinking

Yaideliz M Romero-Ramos • 2021 Science Communication Series Cohort



Over the past few years, the media has portrayed the decline in the US fertility rate as an economic and societal crisis [1,3]. More specifically, they are calling this period a baby bust. Although it is important to speak about population changes, it is also important to remember the factors that may be causing this change and reformulate our thinking.


Childcare, paid parental leave, and healthcare are just some of the essential services that a person needs when expanding their family [1, 2]. As a nation, we are still far from providing these and other services. A supported reproductive decision as part of family planning services is key to supporting citizens and to working together to improve people’s lives and the environment [3]. Why are we not giving people the tools, information, and ability to make the best reproductive decisions, instead of just informing the people about the low fertility rates? The baby bust may be happening, but we must look at the issue from different perspectives.


There are different ways to measure fertility. For example, some commonly used indicators are the general fertility rate (GFR) and the total fertility rate (TFR) [4]. The GFR measures the numbers of births for every 1,000 women in childbearing age, defined as ages 15-44; and it is affected by changes in the age distribution [1,4]. For instance, if more women between the ages of 15 and 35 (peak childbearing years) are bearing children , then the GFR would be higher [4]. Therefore, one important factor to consider when talking about the baby bust and using the GFR indicator is that individuals are becoming parents later in life [5]. In the mid 1990’s, about 22% of women in their early 40’s had a child prior to age 20, and about 53% of women in their early 40’s had a child by age 24 [5]. In 2014, those numbers had dropped to 13% and 39%, respectively [5]. This suggests that there has been a decline in births to those in their teens and early 20s, both in the intervals of peak childbearing years. Consequently, while more people are postponing their intentions of having children, this does not mean that they are not having them [3, 6].


Another way to measure fertility is the total fertility rate (TFR), which is an estimate of the number of children a person will have in their lifetime [4]. This method is used to calculate the “replacement fertility rate,” meaning the TFR needed for a population to replace itself [8]. In the US, this number is considered to be 2.08 [4,9]. In 2020, the National Vital Statistics System by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a TFR of 1.73 births per individual in childbearing age [9]. However, this does not have to mean a bad thing for our population.


A research study conducted in 40 countries showed that a moderately low birth rate – 1.6 children per individual – can actually boost a country’s overall standard of living [10]. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that factors that affect the TFR can also improve the quality of living [11]. For instance, a higher education can impact the timing of childbearing, while also improving the family's quality of life [7]. In 1994, 65% of women in their early 40s with a Ph.D had children, while this number increased to 80% in 2014 [5]. Besides the increase in educational opportunities, especially for girls and women, the expanded access to voluntary family planning methods and the fact that women are delaying and having children later in life are factors to consider when contemplating the baby bust [9,11].


Many articles present the not-so-recent decline in the birth rate as a crisis [12,13]. This situation should be seen as an opportunity to re-evaluate how we ensure people a better quality of life, and provide them the necessary support to live and form a family.


Saying that there is a baby bust and that we need people to have more children is not enough to convince a couple to have them. We should give solutions and support so they can not only feel that they are helping their country but also that their country is helping them in this difficult process [6]. I hope it is possible that we, as a community, can expand our perspective of reproductive decision making and achieve a more sustainable and equitable future for all [3].



References:

  1. Donegan, M. (2021). The birth rate in the US has declined. One reason is economics not moral failure | Moira Donegan. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/09/us-birth-rate-decline-one-economics-coronavirus

  2. Pantekoek, K. (2020). Paid Parental Leave in the U.S. vs. Other Developed Countries. Findlaw. https://employment.findlaw.com/family-medical-leave/paid-parental-leave-in-the-u-s--vs--other-developed-countries.html

  3. Baillie, S. (2021). Stop Panicking—There Are a Lot of Positives to the Baby Bust. Ms. Magazine. https://msmagazine.com/2021/03/15/baby-bust-positives-declining-birth-rate-covid-population-growth-earth-overshoot-day/

  4. Livingston, G. (2019). Is U.S. fertility at an all-time low? Two of three measures point to yes. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/22/u-s-fertility-rate-explained/

  5. Livingston, G. (2018). U.S. Women More Likely to Have Children Than a Decade Ago. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/01/18/theyre-waiting-longer-but-u-s-women-today-more-likely-to-have-children-than-a-decade-ago/

  6. Williams, C. (2020). Millennials Were Already Putting Off Having Children. Then the Pandemic Hit. Morning Consult. https://morningconsult.com/2020/09/28/millennials-economy-children-poll/

  7. Kim, J. (2016). Female education and its impact on fertility. IZA World of Labor. https://doi.org/10.15185/izawol.228

  8. INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR APPLIED SYSTEMS ANALYSIS. (2019,). Differences in replacement level fertility point to inequalities. EurekAlert! https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-12/iifa-dir120419.php

  9. Searing, L. (n.d.). The Big Number: U.S. birth rate drops to all-time low of 1.73. Washington Post. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/the-big-number-us-birthrate-drops-to-all-time-low-of-173/2020/01/17/94f56c0c-3892-11ea-bf30-ad313e4ec754_story.html

  10. Lee, R., Mason, A., members of the NTA Network, Lee, R., Mason, A., Amporfu, E., An, C.-B., Bixby, L. R., Bravo, J., Bucheli, M., Chen, Q., Comelatto, P., Coy, D., d’Albis, H., Donehower, G., Dramani, L., Furnkranz-Prskawetz, A., Gal, R. I., Holz, M., … Zhang, Q. (2014). Is low fertility really a problem? Population aging, dependency, and consumption. Science, 346(6206), 229–234. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1250542

  11. Moran, A. (2020). What Factors Affect the Total Fertility Rate, or TFR? Population Education. https://populationeducation.org/what-factors-affect-the-total-fertility-rate-or-tfr/

  12. CBS News. (2021). Experts sound the alarm on declining birth rates among younger generations: “It’s a crisis.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/birth-rate-declining-younger-generations-crisis/

  13. Bird, M. (2021). The Covid Baby Bust Could Reverberate for Decades. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-covid-baby-bust-could-reverberate-for-decades-11614962945

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