Only a social revolution can reverse falling birth rates

Why do birth rates keep falling? A common explanation is that the cost of living is the main factor, especially the rising cost of accommodation. But an alternative explanation is that the main reason is changing social attitudes. An important new study provides plenty of evidence that the second explanation is the stronger one.

The study, called ‘The Puzzle of Falling US Birth Rates since the Great Recession’ appears in the Winter Edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The three authors, Melissa Kearney, Phillip Levine and Luke Pardue, consider the fact that birth rates in America have not recovered since the recession that saw the bursting of the property bubble in 2007/8, as you would normally expect. It has been the same in Ireland.

The arrival of Covid-19 pushed birth rates even lower, but the trendline was down anyway.

The paper examines various factors in turn, wondering if the birth rate is affected by the cost of childcare, or the cost of accommodation, or student debt etc. It finds that the answer in each case is ‘no, not really’.

This might surprise some people. Surely if it costs more to rent or buy a home, that must make it harder to have children? Likewise, if day-care is expensive.

But the authors look at different American states and find no real correlation, one way or the other. The cost of accommodation varies greatly across the US, and some states subsidise day-care more than others. But all across America, with the exception of tiny North Dakota, birth rates have continued to fall.

They also look briefly at a number of European countries. The nations of Scandinavia are famous for their generous welfare states and cheap day-care, but their birth rates are actually lower than America’s.

The authors suggest that the real reason for the continued fall in birth rates is “shifting priorities across cohorts of young adults”.

Women who reached their early-to-mid twenties in the period 1992 to 2002 were much more likely to have children, and more of them, in subsequent years than the women coming after them. (See figure 5 in the article).

Summarising their argument, the authors seem to think there are three explanations for this development. One is that more women are placing a higher priority on their careers, as men have usually done.

Another is that young adults in general want more time for themselves, that is, they value their personal freedom very highly. This means putting off children until later in life. In Ireland, couples now typically wait until they are in their 30s before having their first child.

Thirdly, when they do have children, they want to invest lots of time and energy in them. Among other things, this will mean ensuring they get the best possible education. The more children you have, the harder this becomes. (An aside: are the educational expectations we are heaping on our children a reason for higher levels of anxiety among them?)

What can do we do to increase birth rates again? The authors seem to think, very little. We will just have to live with the consequences, including a rapidly ageing population.

Perhaps they are right. But social revolutions can happen. Perhaps at some stage in the future, people will decide again that personal autonomy and work are not the be-all and end-all of life. They might conclude that we need to build a more pro-family and pro-child society again, and begin to develop social attitudes (and policies) that encourage this. Without such a social revolution, the future of our societies looks very bleak indeed.