The United States had been one of the few developed countries to maintain fertility rates at close to replacement level.  However, the average number of births per woman there is projected to fall to 1.87 this year and 1.86 next year according to consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, as cited by USA Today.   Surprisingly, it is now below that of even the British and the French (both at 2.0).  The rates are a 25 year low and, sadly, seem in some part to be due to the recession and a rising cost of living and having children. 

Are people just getting a bit soft and want optimum circumstances to have children now, or is it really a lot harder out there.  At least as I perceive it, it seems that luxuries are easier to come by than in the past – like travel and dinners out – but the necessities of life like housing and the weekly food bill do seem to have become more expensive for young families.  Added to this, high numbers of young people are out of work at the moment, so can you really blame them for not wanting to start a family without a secure income coming in?

According to a Pew Research Centre study young adults have definitely been hit hardest by the recession.  The study finds that more than one-in-five young people aged 18 to 34 at least say that the reason they have postponed having a baby is because of the bad economy. About the same proportion (20%) say that they have postponed getting married because of it (as an aside, I think it’s a shame that marriage is perceived to be necessarily such a big expense these days when really all it need be is a church service and the committment of two people!).  Additionally, about a quarter say that they have moved back in with their parents after living on their own.  USA Today cites the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families Stephanie Coontz as worrying:

“The more you delay it, the more you delay the possibility of a second or third child…This is probably a long-term trend that is exacerbated by the recession but also by the general hollowing out of middle-class jobs. There’s a growing sense that college is prohibitively expensive, and yet your kids can’t make it without a college degree,” so many women may decide to have just one child. “We have to think through our policies,” she says. “We’ve got to provide better support systems for working mothers as well as fathers.”

If worry about college degrees is really contributing to the low birth rate to such an extent, it does make one wonder why college degrees have become so necessary in any case – especially in countries like the United States where a student loan and college fees are so expensive.  Does our economy and job market really have to be structured around jobs that can’t be done without college degrees.  I certainly think that college degrees offer thinking skills and hopefully broaden minds, but if their necessity to now do almost any job stops us giving birth to a working population at all, we certainly seem to be be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and creating a rather ridiculous situation.  What happened to learning on the job and being given opportunities to move up within an organisation like people seemed able to do 50 years ago?

As we have discussed before on this blog, current United States fertility rates are also to some extent affected by Hispanics – who traditionally have higher birth rates – moving home, and less immigration because of less jobs.  With such a long slump – the greatest since the Depression in the 1930’s, there will be effects down the line. 

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...