The U.S. birth rate hit a historic low in 2017, setting a new record for the second straight year. There were just 60.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age last year, down from 62 in 2016. Demographers have been predictably freaked out by this decline. If population growth falls below the replacement rate—in other words, if the workforce starts losing more people than it’s gaining, and if the population eventually begins to decline—low birth rates could put a strain on the tax base that supports social services and cause the U.S. economy to stall out.
Researchers have been grasping for possible explanations for this phenomenon, ever since the birth rate took a sharp downturn around 2008. The recession was an obvious one: When people are unemployed, underemployed, or experiencing housing insecurity, they’re less likely to want to start or expand their families. More recently, it’s become clear that a precipitous drop in teen births has contributed most to the falling fertility rate, as young women gain access to more reliable contraceptive options like IUDs. The proportion of first-time births in the U.S. that occur among teenagers has been nearly cut in half since 2000, and the teen birth rate has dropped by more than 50 percent since 2007 alone. That decline has not quite been matched by the rising birth rates among women over 40, for whom better fertility options and shifting social norms have opened doors to later motherhood.
Two new studies analyzed in the New York Times this week shed more light on the reasons why women are having children later, less often, or not at all. One, a nationally representative Morning Consult survey of more than 1,800 Americans between the ages of 20 and 45, found that expensive child care, a desire for more free time, concerns about the economy, and lack of romantic partners topped their lists of reasons why they didn’t want children or have had fewer kids than they’d like. In another study, which asked women at U.S. and Israeli fertility clinics why they were freezing their eggs, only two of 150 named career concerns as their primary reason for delaying parenthood, upending the loudest narrative surrounding the pricey service. The main reason, cited by half of the single women in the study, was uncertainty about when they might meet someone with whom they’d want to have children. The next most common reason, a divorce or breakup, rests on related concerns. The 15 percent of study subjects who were not single mostly said they wanted to freeze their eggs because their partners weren’t ready or willing to have children.
Advocates for women and gender equity should use these studies, and related ones that have yielded similar findings, to shift the conversation around falling birth rates in the U.S. Traditionally, such discussions have taken a paternalistic and objectifying tone, casting women as reproductive agents who must fulfill their roles as breeders to keep the nation’s economic engines churning. Analysts have often looked at the decline in childbirth among millennials, for instance, and wondered why women were failing to make babies as usual. Here’s one example: In a Washington Post article that covered the 2016 drop in U.S. fertility, a demographer and a scholar blamed women’s “lifestyle” choices and “women becoming more educated and more mature,” respectively, for the possible coming population apocalypse.
But these two new studies show what most women could already tell you: They aren’t the only ones holding up the baby train. Men, too, are suffering through a period of skyrocketing income inequality that leaves them less likely than previous generations to make more money than their parents did. And men, too, are subject to changing social mores that are slowly destigmatizing lifelong single-dom or childlessness. Confronting child care costs and shortages is stressful for people of any gender, even if women bear a disproportionate share of the economic burden.
Other countries have tried to halt declining birth rates with better support for parents—such as subsidized child care, paid parental leave, and policies that encourage men to take on bigger roles early in their children’s lives—with some success. Some jurisdictions are testing more creative solutions: One suburb of Tokyo is paying for women to freeze their eggs in hopes of encouraging them to have children later in life, when they’re ready. (In the recent Morning Consult survey, just 1 percent of female respondents reporting having frozen their eggs, but nearly half said they would do so if it weren’t so expensive.) The U.S. has infinite room for improvement on the family policy front, and any movement in that arena would be long overdue.
With that in mind, it would be great if people who talk about population growth and demography could start shifting their focus away from women and onto men and policymakers, with the ultimate goal of clearing the way for every person to make the reproductive decisions that are best for their own lives, not the national economy. If women aren’t having kids when they want to, because they’re worried about motherhood wage penalties, that’s a function of inflexible corporate policies, inequitable domestic labor division, and gender discrimination. If student debt and child care costs are preventing parents from expanding their families, I can think of a few good legislative solutions that are worth a try. If women’s standards for what makes a suitable male partner have risen, such that they find themselves single in their late 30s instead of settling in their 20s, that should be cause for full-throated celebration—and, possibly, a concerted national effort to heal the wounds of masculinity that have kept men from living up to those expectations. The questions we’ve historically asked about falling birth rates can be boiled down to: “Why are women doing things differently?” We might get better answers by asking: “Why isn’t everyone else?”