U.S. women are starting families later and having fewer children, some forgoing having kids entirely. Those are among the factors contributing to news that in 2023, the U.S total fertility rate hit its lowest point, falling to a record 1.62 births per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births.

All numbers in the new report, released Thursday from the National Center for Health Statistics within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are provisional. While they’re based on an estimated 99% of birth records now in, final numbers may be slightly different when released later this year.

The total fertility rate is an estimate of how many births a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes, based on the age-specific birthrate in a particular year, the report explains.

The total number of births — 3.59 million in 2023 — was a 2% drop from 2022 and the lowest number since 1979.

According to the report, the drop below replacement rate began in the U.S. around 1971 and has been consistently below for the last 15 years.

“People are making rather reasoned decisions about whether or not to have a child at all,” Karen Benjamin Guzzo, director of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Wall Street Journal. “More often than not, I think what they’re deciding is ‘Yes, I’d like to have children, but not yet.’”

Many experts believe that the long-standing trend could put a crimp in economic growth and pose future problems. As Deseret News reported last year, “Fertility is a roadmap to aspects of the future that have great bearing on most people’s lives in one way or another, though they may not recognize it. Population change impacts schools, economies and social programs, experts say. It can impact whether you can cash out the equity in your house or how many holes the social safety net might have as you grow old.”

“The babies that are born today are the future schoolchildren, the future adults, the future seniors. A lot of the work I do is around helping governments plan for population change,” Beth Jarosz, program director in U.S. programs and director for KidsData at the Population Reference Bureau, told Deseret News at the time.

Population size can be bolstered by two things: more births than deaths or immigration.

Births by age and race

The highest birthrate was among women ages 30 to 34, at close to 95 births for every 1,000 women in the age range. And while women 40 and older have the lowest birthrate, at fewer than 13 per 1,000, that age group also was the only one to see a modest increase in its birthrate.

The birthrate for teens was down to 13.2 per 1,000 females — a record low for teen births. The report said that the birthrate for teens had dropped by 68% since 2007 and 79% since its most recent peak in 1991.

The birth rate was also lower for women in other age groups through ages 39. Birthrates were unchanged for women in their 40s.

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The general fertility rate decreased 3% to 54.4 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, an age range generally considered to be childbearing age. General fertility declined 5% for Black women and American Indian and Alaska Native women, 3% for Asian and white women and 1% for Hispanic women compared to 2022. The general fertility rate didn’t change for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women.

The provisional number of births for Hispanic women rose 1%, while births for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women were basically unchanged. Among American Indian and Alaska Native women, births declined 5%, while they fell 4% for Black women. White women had 3% fewer babies overall, while Asian women had 2% fewer.

The report also tracked some related facts: Nearly one-third of all babies were born by cesarean delivery in 2023, at 32.4%. “This is the fourth increase in a row after the rate generally declined from 2009 (32.9%) through 2019 (31.7%) and the highest rate since 2013 (32.7%).”

Meanwhile, just over 1 in 10 babies born in 2023 were preterm, which was about the same as the previous year. Preterm is the designation for babies born at less than 37 completed weeks of gestation. Rates of early preterm (less than 34 weeks) and late preterm (34 to 36 weeks) were also largely unchanged, with 2.76% of births early preterm and 7.65% late preterm.

Behind the numbers

In the 2023 “No Honey, No Baby: The Relational and Economic Factors Associated With Having Children in America,” author Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, tried to explain a fertility trend that she said isn’t always tied to “some of the usual suspects”: demographics, economics and family-friendly policy. Her research found a clump of factors that lead young U.S. adults to forgo marriage and having kids.

The reasons include young people who may want children but feel they haven’t found the right partner. But they also include a quarter of childless adults who say children are simply not in their plans at all.

While experts are grappling to explain the trend, many say it’s not following the historical pattern of more or fewer births related to whether the economy’s booming or busting. And a 2021 study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Melissa Kearney, Phillip B. Levine and Luke Pardue said factors commonly blamed don’t hold up, including effective contraception, the expense of raising a family, better career options for women and student debt.

But experts agree there are economic and societal costs to falling fertility which may not be felt or understood for years.

Fertility and the economy

“Experts speculate ramifications exist for schools, for the economy, for building personal wealth and even for personal relationships, with different effects for the young, middle-aged or old,” as Deseret News previously reported. A smaller workforce may struggle to support the elderly. A tighter economy and less entrepreneurship could occur. Innovation may stall and education institutions falter or fold. And loneliness, already an ache for many older adults, may grow.

A dropping birthrate is certainly not a U.S. phenomenon. Many parts of the world are experiencing a decline in births. Forbes reports that the change will “drive major global shifts in power over coming decades,” and notes that policymakers and others are worried about it.

“Many countries like China and Japan have been trying to encourage people to have more kids and a birth rate below the replacement rate signals major demographic shifts on the horizon. In particular, it portends sluggish growth, an aging population and an economy that one day may struggle to find enough workers to fill jobs and pay the taxes required to maintain the state and care for a large elderly population, whose health and other needs often require far more expenditure per capita than younger people,” the article said.