One thing that President Trump inherited from his predecessor, but which he has been unable to overturn so far, has been the USA’s declining birth rate. And the last two years, 2016 and 2017, have seen successive record low fertility rates. In 2017 the fertility rate was 60.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, a three per cent drop from 2016. At the same time, the number of births dropped by two per cent, to 3.85 million, the lowest number of births for thirty years. This has meant that the natural change (the number of births less the number of deaths in a particular year) is just over one million people, the lowest it’s been since the late 1930s and much the lowest natural change as a proportion of the overall population since 1935. Now, thanks to this natural growth and to immigration, the population of the USA is still growing at about 0.7 per cent per year. So there is little chance of the American population starting to decline, like some of its geopolitical rivals, anytime soon.
However, the question needs to be asked, why is the USA’s birthrate still declining? After all, as Christine Emba in the Washington Post notes, it was predictable that birthrates would decline in the aftermath of the 2007 crash – birthrates tend to drop during periods of hard economic times as people put off having babies. However, usually the birth rate rebounds as the economy does. But this time, while the economy has improved, the birth rate has continued its downward slide. The answer could still be economic, the recession and its aftermath continues to cast long shadows. While millennials are not buying houses and setting up retirement funds, they are also postponing childbirth and starting families. They are taking more time to secure a career and have less time for starting and having a family. This is one of the reasons why the only age group of women who saw their fertility rates go up was the over-40s.
Another reason advanced by David French at National Review Online is that this delining fertility rate can in part be described as a mental and spiritual problem, one of depression and anxiety, rather than of dollars and houses. Already we know that the life expectancy of Americans is decreasing thanks largely to self-inflicted deaths, diseases and addictions. These extra deaths have been described as “deaths of despair”: seemingly inexplicable deaths in the world’s wealithiest and most powerful nation. And although it is the mortality rates of older white men that is rising, French notes that there are sobering statistics about the mental health of the younger generations.
So for example, the years 2008 to 2015 saw the number of children and teens hospitalised for “suicidal thoughts or actions” more than double. From 2005 to 2014 the number of teens who reported a major depressive episode increased by 37 per cent. In 2016, a Time magazine story reported that an incredible 30 per cent of Los Angeles Unified School District students experienced “feelings of hopelessness and sadness lasting more than two weeks”! In 2015, Vox magazine reported that more than 25 per cent of college students have a diagnosable mental illness and “61 per cent of 1,010 college student who responded to an American College Health Association assessment in fall 2014 reported feeling overwhelming anxiety last year”. Vox also noted that according to Psychology Today, “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s”.
When one loses hope, when one is depressed, alienated, feels worthless or anxious about society, their place in it, or the future, then one is less likely to want to bring a child into the world. A child is a surety of faith in the future, a sign that one thinks that the future is worth living in. Is it surprising then that a younger generation that is so sad is not having so many children? There are deaths of despair in the USA, there are also perhaps children not had due to despair as well.