What many demographic experts hoped was the start of a rising birthrate trend in 2021 apparently fizzled out in 2022. The number of births was essentially flat, while the general fertility rate continued to decline, albeit by just 1%.

In 2022 America, there were 56 births per 1,000 females of prime childbearing age.

That’s according to new data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

As the overall U.S. birthrate continues to fall, some experts predict that personal happiness may take a hit as well. And they foresee other consequences, too.

“I think naturally most people want to have kids. There are just a lot of obstacles there,” Wendy Wang, director of research for The Institute for Family Studies, told the Deseret News. “Marriage is a big one. Married women have a much higher fertility rate than single women — and with fewer married, we naturally see a lower fertility rate.”

Wang said research finds women who have children — “especially those who are married” — are happier than their childless peers. She believes having children increases emotional health for people, including as they age.

But she notes a downward trend for fertility since the 2008 recession and said that in 2020, during the pandemic, fertility hit its lowest point ever in the United States. “It’s not surprising that since, we’ve seen a little rise,” said Wang. “And it’s not surprising we are back on the track of steady decline.”

The total fertility replacement rate of 2.1 births per 1,000 women is becoming a memory; in 2022, the U.S. rate was 1.665 births per 1,000 women.

In May, Emily Harris, the senior demographer at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News it’s “normal” for immigration — which bolsters population size — and fertility to drop when the economy’s unsettled. “People kind of stop what they’re doing when times are uncertain. What’s interesting is that even after we exited recession and went into more boom time, rather than seeing a rebound in fertility, we actually saw a decline.”

Preemies and C-sections

The National Center for Health Statistics report noted that birthrates fell among teens ages 15-19 (down 2%) and young adults 20-24 (down 7%), while rising 1% for moms 25-29, 3% for moms 35-39 and 5% for those 40-44.

For those ages 30-34, the birthrate didn’t change between 2021 and 2022, the center reported.

In all, 3,667,758 births were registered in 2022, the report says, the change negligible from 2021’s 3,664,292.

Among other report highlights:

  • The cesarean delivery rate was 32.1% in 2022, unchanged from the previous year. Between 2020 and 2021, it had risen 1%.
  • The preterm birthrate fell 1% to 10.3%, after a 4% increase the previous year.

Cause for concern

Experts like Wang see reason to worry about the consequences of having fewer children overall.

“I know there are different opinions here, but we need population as the foundation of a country,” Wang said. She said people are consumers, but also workers, and a healthy and well-filled labor force is essential to a robust economy. Nor does the U.S. want a population structure that isn’t sustainable, with a lot of people of retirement age not working and a smaller and shrinking population of younger people trying to support that older group. She calls that “an economic crisis.”

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For years, experts have warned the Deseret News that declining fertility could show up later in the form of school closures, cuts in safety-net programs, lack of innovation and a dearth of qualified employees, among other challenges.

On a more street level, it could even be hard to cash out of one of a family’s likely biggest assets: a house.

“I think right now people don’t think about the link between the real estate market and long-term population trends,” Wang said this week. “The demand for housing is really because of the people. If we have fewer people, we don’t need that many houses.”

She said the existing housing shortage masks the possible future consequences. But countries like Japan and China that have aging populations provide a look at what can happen, including housing market crashes.

Not forming families

A 2022 study by Wang and colleagues found 1 in 6 women ages 40-44 have never had a child, up from 1 in 10 in 1980. And many are delaying.

One of the big concerns with starting families at an older age is that women will not be able to have the size family they consider ideal, demographer Lyman Stone, a research fellow for the Institute for Family Studies, has told the Deseret News. When the institute and Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University surveyed couples about why they don’t reach their desired fertility, the most-cited reason was “still looking for the right spouse/partner.”

That was followed quite closely by “can’t afford,” then lifestyle or career, the family not yet completed and difficulty getting pregnant.

The research brief also found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they won’t have a child unless they find the right partner.

But the group that’s simply rejecting parenthood is growing, too, and includes nearly a quarter of childless adults who say they intend to remain that way. An identical 23% say they would be more likely to have children if given some government support, such as a child allowance.

In June, Stone and Brad Wilcox, who teaches sociology at the University of Virginia and directs the National Marriage Project there, reported on another change that may impact fertility in America. They wrote for The Atlantic that young women in the U.S. are shifting significantly left politically, while young men are drifting somewhat to the right.

Polls say polarization makes it unlikely folks will cross ideologic boundaries to date or marry. The nationally representative 2022 American Family Survey, conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and BYU, found just 7% of those in committed relationships or married said their partner had a different party affiliation. They were more likely to be dating or married to someone of a different race or religion — true, in both cases, for 1 in 10 couples — than to be with someone of a different political persuasion.

Harris said the effects of fewer children won’t be felt immediately if birthrates don’t rebound. But they will be felt. “A lot of our national policies are built on the assumption that we will have a lot of young people and fewer older people — a large workforce to support those who are older,” she said in May.