On Fertility, Becoming Europe, Not China

by W. Bradford Wilcox

When it comes to fertility, as with so many other things, American exceptionalism appears to be coming to an end. I take up this matter in my review of Jonathan Last’s new book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, in the latest issue of National Review.

The key bit:

[Last] thinks the American “fertility rate will take a nosedive” in the near future. Hispanics will cut back on childbearing and thereby stop propping up the U.S. fertility rate. The nation’s percentage of religious “nones,” who have fewer kids than their pious peers, will keep rising among today’s young adults. And the government will continue to subsidize retirement and tax parents too much, thereby undercutting the economic incentives for having children. More fundamentally, too few Americans will be able to resist the “trap of modernity, which pushes people to eschew children in favor of more pleasurable pursuits.”

Indeed, Last thinks the current cultural and policy regime amounts to a kind of American One-Child Policy, albeit a softer and unintentional version of the one put in place by China in 1979. And he sees the nation headed in China’s demographic direction, in which fertility has been driven – in large part, by state policy — to a [Total Fertility Rate] of less than 1.55 children per woman.

I think Last overestimates our peril. I don’t think we are headed for a “demographic disaster.” Demographers think that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) for American women has now fallen to 1.87 children per woman. This amounts to a 25-year low but it’s nowhere close to China’s fertility rate, and the United States is still recovering from the worst recession in more than half a century. (Recessions tend to depress fertility.)

But I think Last is on to something. Compared with Europe (and the rest of the developed world), the United States has enjoyed exceptionally high levels of fertility, with American fertility falling close to the replacement level TFR of 2.1 for most of the last 25 years. Given recent declines in Hispanic fertility both in the United States and in Mexico and declines in religiosity among young adults in America, I think the era of high fertility in the United States is over.

So my prediction is that the United States is headed to a TFR of about 1.9, close to the rate we now see in Northern Europe. That’s just more evidence that we may be becoming Europe.

 W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the co-author of Whither the Child? Causes and Consequences of Low Fertility.