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Plummeting Birth Rates in the US Leave Experts Mystified

Published: January 5, 2023
Mollie Wetzel watches as her nine month old daughter Olivia drinks a bottle of formula in her nursery on May 16, 2022 in Victor, Idaho. (Image: Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

According to a report, published by the University of Maryland and Wellesley College early last year, birth rates in the U.S. have fallen by 20 percent since 2007 and the phenomena cannot be explained by demographic, economic, or policy changes. 

Prior to the Great Recession, which occurred from late 2007 into 2009, the number of babies born per woman in the U.S. was considered stable for the previous three decades, fluctuating within a relatively narrow range often tied to the economy’s performance.

According to Macrotrends, the birth rate in the U.S. for 2022 was 12.012 births per 1,000 people, an increase of 0.09 percent compared to the previous year; however this increase was “a mere 1 percent, while total births were still lower than any other year since 1983.”

When considering birth rates among women of a certain age, between 1980 and 2007 the U.S. birth rate was between 65 and 70 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44, compared to only 55.8 births per woman of the same age range in 2020, a decline of around 20 percent.

Typically, in the U.S., birth rates fluctuate with the economy, falling when the economy is considered unfavorable and rising again once the economy recovers. Following the Great Recession however the birth rate did not recover, but continued its descent.

“The decline in births cannot readily be explained by changing population composition,” the authors of the report conclude. 

The sustained decline in birth rates since 2007 is believed to be driven by declining birth rates among numerous demographic groups, not by changes in population composition. 

Birth rates are also falling for women in their early 20s and teen pregnancies in the U.S. have been steadily falling since the mid-1990s. 

Race does not appear to be a factor as white, black and Hispanic women have all experienced a decline in birth rates with the largest decline being among Hispanic women, the authors claim.

Levels of education and marital status do not appear to be factors as well. “Births have also fallen among women with and without college degrees and among both married and unmarried women,” the authors of the report conclude.

In addition, no obvious policy or economic factor can explain the declines. While the report revealed that the Great Recession was most likely the catalyst for the declining birth rates, “Beyond that, it is difficult to identify any policy or economic factor that can statistically account for the continued decline.”

Shifting priorities and important social and economic outcomes

The report’s authors speculate that shifting priorities could be the primary reason for the decline in birth rates since 2007. 

“There is survey and anecdotal data suggesting that perhaps more recent cohorts of young adults have different preferences for having children, aspirations for life, and views about parenting norms that are driving the decline in the U.S. birth rates,” the authors speculate, further arguing that these changes started to surface long before the Great Recession. 

The decline in birth rates will have important social and economic consequences, not necessarily challenges, but, the declines and an absence of increased immigration could lead to a smaller U.S. workforce and an older population placing strain on both the economy and healthcare services.

“In addition, the combination of a smaller workforce and an aging population puts fiscal pressure on social insurance programs, like Social Security, that rely on tax payments from current workers to pay the benefits of current retirees,” the authors point out.

While the report concludes that “A decline in annual birth rates does not necessarily imply a long-term reduction in childbearing” it does warn that a continued decline in birth rates will likely impact economic growth and productivity, “as well as the fiscal sustainability of current social insurance programs. 


This photo taken on Oct. 17, 2021 shows a woman inspecting rows of profiles strung up between trees during a matchmaking event in Jinan in eastern China’s Shandong province.  As concerns loom over the nation’s falling birth and marriage rates, and the knock-on effect of economic stagnation and an aging workforce, local officials from China’s Communist Party’s youth branch are increasingly taking on the role of matchmakers. (Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Declining birth rates a global phenomena

Declining birth rates are a phenomenon that is unfolding in many countries, for a multitude of reasons.

In 2022, for example, the number of children born in Japan was well below the previous year’s record low and prompted a top Japanese government spokesman to say that the circumstances are a “critical situation.”

Between January and September of 2022, a total of 599,636 children were born in Japan, 4.9 percent lower than a year prior indicating that the number of total births for 2022 may fall below last year’s record low of 811,000 births, Japanese authorities said.

The plummeting birth rates have prompted the Japanese government to introduce comprehensive measures to encourage more births and marriages, however so far the implementation of government subsidies for pregnancy, childbirth and child care have failed to encourage people to have more babies. 

Young Japanese balk at the prospect of having a family, discouraged by bleak job prospects, long commutes and corporate cultures that are incompatible with a traditional family where one parent stays home to tend to the children while the other works.

China, the world’s most populous country, is currently grappling with both low birth rates and an aging population. 

According to Macrotrends, the current birth rate in China is 10.645 births per 1,000 people, a decline of 2.36 percent from 2022. In 2022, births per 1,000 people was 10.902, a decline of 2.3 percent compared to 2021 and 2021 the birth rate was 11.159 births per 1,000 people, a decline of 2.25 percent from 2020. This trend shows no signs of stopping.

Globally, in 2022 there were 17.668 births per 1,000 people, a decline of 1.15 percent compared to 2021. On average, global birth rates have fallen by 1.13 percent, every year since at least 2019 and there are no signs that this trend will reverse.