Global birth rates have been declining steadily for the past decade. As the planets’ human inhabitants continue to live longer the decline in birthrates, especially in developed countries, is causing alarm. The onset of a global pandemic in 2020 accelerated this trend with far-reaching consequences as yet to be fully understood.
China’s infamous one-child policy resulted in such a dramatic drop in birth rates and population decline that the country now allows married couples to have up to three children. Despite the policy shift, birth rates continue to decline leaving one of the largest economies in the world grappling with how to sustain itself as their population ages.
For the sixth straight year the United States government has reported a decline in birthrates, down 4% in December of 2020. It was falsely believed that as people were forced to shelter in place while COVID-19 raged across the globe there would be an increase in new babies being born.
Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Birth rates decreased even more. As a result of this trend more people in the U.S. are living longer into their golden years than babies are being born to take their place in the workforce.
“Some worry that a ‘baby bust’ will create societal age imbalances and strain health care and retirement systems while also eventually stripping the economy of young workers who tend to drive innovation and growth.” wsj.com
Japan’s population is predicted to fall from approximately 127 million people to a mere 53 million at the end of the century. Spain, Portugal and South Korea are predicting their populations falling to half of what they are now in that same timeframe.
The Global Impact of Declining Birthrates
It might seem like a good thing, fewer babies being born. Less people mean less demand for natural resources, a decrease in carbon emissions and more food for everyone without requiring deforestation for bigger farms, right? Not exactly.
Modern medicine and technology mean global inhabitants, especially in developed nations, are living longer. Without an increase in babies, who will grow up to work to pay the taxes to care for the elderly and support their society? There will be fewer factory workers, farmers and people to harvest food and transport it. A massive labor shortage looms with too few young adults to support an aging population.
Why Birth Rates Are Declining In The United States
A multitude of factors have contributed to declining birth rates in the U.S.
With numerous highly effective contraceptives readily available, unintended pregnancies have declined dramatically. This is particularly true among teenage women with birth rates reaching a record low in 2019. It is important to note that while legal medically safe abortions are more readily available this is not linked to declining birth rates. Abortion rates have continued to decline steadily as well.
Women are increasingly pursuing advanced degrees especially in fields like engineering, medicine and technology. As they stay in school longer, they accrue large student debt burdens before pursuing a career that they have invested so much time and money in. As a result many women are simply delaying childbirth later in life and having fewer children or opting out of it entirely.
Gender Pay Gap
It takes women an average of two years longer to pay off their student loans than men because they are paid less. Women in this country carry a “whopping $890 billion” in student loan debt. With a financial burden like that many women feel like they cannot afford to have children.
For many women, taking maternity leave means a decrease in salary, being passed over for promotions and a subsequent loss in retirement benefits. Without guaranteed paid maternity leave, job status protection and the exorbitant cost of childcare it is not hard to understand why women are having only one child or skipping motherhood all together.
The Myths of Motherhood
Many millennial women feel they won’t be able to live up to the standard of being a selfless and perfect parent. They also fear the professional identity that they have worked so hard for will be reduced to just, mom. Women who have taken time off to have children often find they are perceived as less dedicated at work, or conversely, as bad mothers for putting so much time and effort back into their careers when they return from maternity leave.
The Grim Future
One thing is for certain — unless birth rates begin to rebound in developed nations the world is facing a labor shortage crisis with too many elderly and too few young adults working, paying taxes, innovating, creating, and supporting their parents and grandparents in their golden years. Unless dramatic changes are made to better support women who choose to become mothers this trend will continue.