SALT LAKE CITY — American women are having fewer babies, a drop in fertility that has reached even into high fertility states like Utah, long noted for larger families. The Beehive State, like the rest of the nation, has seen a decrease in fertility for 10 years.

But a close look at the numbers suggests that total fertility in the United States could be stabilizing, though at a historically low level.

That’s according to a forecast from consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, which projects fertility and birth rate trends. Stability after years of decline could calm some fears of future economic fallout or dread that America will age like Japan and parts of Europe.

The total fertility rate leveled off in the second quarter of 2019, according to Demographic Intelligence’s chief information officer Lyman Stone, who said the projection is backed by new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC puts the U.S. fertility rate in 2018 at 1.729 births per woman, significantly below the 2.1 rate required to replace the existing population, last seen in 2007. But predicted declines in the near future are far smaller than they have been: Demographic Intelligence expects total fertility to drop to 1.71 for 2019 and then hold steady at 1.70 in 2020 and 1.69 in 2021.

Heather Tuttle

That’s good news because the decline is slowing, but bad because there’s no sign of a rebound of any magnitude, Stone told the Deseret News.

In a statement released this week, the company said the leveling can be attributed to three things:

 —  Members of the largest millennial cohort are nearing their late 20s and early 30s, now “prime time to have children.”

— The portion of millennials who will marry is expected to increase a bit, and marriage has strong correlation to fertility.

— And the 2019 American Family Survey, a nationally representative poll conducted for Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, finds an increase in the share of women who call it “at least somewhat likely” they will give birth in the next two years.

But nothing is certain, said Stone, who noted numbers stabilized temporarily in 2014 before falling further. 

Why it matters

Stone sees social and individual reasons to care about lower fertility. Among social reasons, economic research shows less population growth leads to less innovation and entrepreneurship, smaller rates of per capita economic growth and problems with intergenerational transfers, from the stock market to Social Security to home sales.

“The entire economy is an intergenerational transfer,” Stone said. “Good luck selling your house if there’s no one there to buy it.”

A decline in fertility can hamper economic growth and make it harder to liquidate retirement assets, too.

But he’s more concerned about the impact on individuals, including the fact that most women say they’d like to have two or three children. Low fertility indicates that desire is not realized.

“Right now, there are millions of American families that are not having the family life they aspire to,” he said. “Who are not experiencing the major turning points of life that have made life meaningful and significant to people for millennia.”

Even in Utah

Predicting a long fertility trend line in a society that doesn’t have high child mortality and that enjoys modern health standards and life expectancy is hard, Stone said. Fertility “could go down and down and then keep going down,” like in South Korea. It could go way down and pop back up aggressively, as is happening in parts of Europe. Or it could stay high and then fall rapidly for inexplicable reasons, like in Finland, he said.

“Right now, it looks like if birth conditions remain the way they are, a very large number of women are not going to have the number of children they want to have,” said Stone. 

Nor is it as simple as women just deciding to have more, he added. Delayed marriage is a big factor in fertility decline. Women who put off trying to have children may discover fertility problems they didn’t expect. Most people don’t know even basic facts about biological clocks — which vary greatly anyway — unless they have encountered problems getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, he added.

Utah has high fertility and a young population compared to the vast majority of the country. But Utah fertility has trended down, too. Whether it will continue is hard to predict.

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“Fertility rates do continue to fall,” said Pamela S. Perlich, director of demographic research for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. “It is possible that they may stabilize next year. With the missionary age change and policy for young women (who in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can now serve missions at age 19 rather than 21), I expect that many of the returned missionary women will have fewer children and also have them later. That ‘pregnant pause’ should be about over, and we should see fertility stabilize here in Utah in the next several years,” she said.

But she doesn’t expect fertility to return to the rates seen in the 1960s, when Utah women averaged more than four children.

Perlich said if societies do not adapt, lower fertility rates can cause problems.

“You end up with more older folks relative to working-age people. But it’s important to remember that we are very affluent, technologically advanced and have the capability to adapt to changing age structures. It’s a matter of commitment to reengineering institutions so that they work for the new realities of our communities. Given the cultural foundation in Utah, common good has long been a pillar of policy. We are capable of adjusting our institutions to these new realities,” Perlich said.