SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s population experts had believed its families would return to having more babies as the Beehive State recovered from the Great Recession.

But even as more Utahns have gone back to work and parents are taking home bigger paychecks, the state’s fertility rate has continued to drop.

“We had all anticipated that we would have a decline in fertility, but we didn’t expect the decline to be so precipitous and the duration so long,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “I think we’re into a new era.”

New census data reflect Utah’s declining fertility rate, down to 2.03 births per woman of childbearing age as of last year— the lowest at any point in more than 50 years. For the first time, it is below the replacement level of 2.1, the rate needed to replenish the current population if migration from other states and countries isn’t considered.

Over a five-year period ending in 2018, children and teens represented a smaller chunk of Utah’s 3.2 million population, at 30.2%. That’s about one point less than in the previous five-year stretch, show the figures out Wednesday from the American Community Survey.

The release also shows that fewer households are home to kids younger than 18, and enrollment in kindergarten has also declined.

Perlich and her colleagues believe several factors may contribute to the changing fertility rate. Many are tied to women pursuing other opportunities before they become moms.

They include a 2012 change that allowed women to serve earlier missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The faith lowered the age from 21 to 19 for women, and 19 to 18 for men.

After the announcement, greater numbers of women signed up to proselytize. The first wave are now entering their late 20s, noted Perlich, who analyzed the census data with demographer Mallory Bateman and shared the findings with the Deseret News.

“They’ve had the opportunity to get schooling and be on these global missionary trips and participate in that experience,” Perlich said. “Every time you live in a new place and meet a new community, it opens your eyes and mind and heart to new possibilities for yourself.”

Other factors are also at play. More Utah women may be prioritizing their studies as the state’s public colleges urge them to stay enrolled until graduation. And many are likely focusing on their careers before becoming mothers. They are increasingly fueling Utah’s workforce, the new estimates show.

The percentage of working women 16 and older has ticked up by about two points to 57.7%. And over half of Utah households with children under 6 reported that both parents work, a slight increase from a year earlier.

Moreover, today’s young adults came of age during the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression, Perlich added. Even as Utah’s economy has expanded, many are struggling to afford growing housing costs and tuition or loans while trying to find their footing in the workforce. It’s a group for whom more affordable day care and flexible work arrangements could be a big help, Perlich said.

Cydni Tetro, president of the Salt Lake City-based Women Tech Council, agrees.

She said her industry has offered flexible work hours and catered to new parents as it seeks to grow the number of women working in tech. 

“There’s sometimes I’m just working from the soccer field, or I’m working in my car,” said Tetro, also the CEO of the software company ForgeDX and a mother of three. “That’s not true in every industry, but in technology, we have flexibility that no one else has in order to support our businesses. And it becomes very helpful to your family and to being able to have children and to build a career.”

For example, Domo, the American Fork-based analytics platform, announced last week that it would allow a paid month off for employees during the eighth month of their pregnancies, Tetro said. Adobe, with a campus in Lehi, offers more than six months of paid time off to new moms, Tetro said. She believes such offerings could help boost Utah’s fertility rate back above replacement levels and ensure enough workers can support an aging population.

Utah boasted the highest fertility rate in the nation as recently as 2015, but now falls behind the midwestern states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.

While the current downward trend dating to 2007 may cause concerns among some and will require planning for an aging population, the demographic shift means more resources per child, either in a household or community, Perlich noted.

And the slipping fertility rate is not unique to the Beehive State. In the U.S., the rate has also dipped to a historic low of 1.73, lower than in Utah. Perlich anticipates that births will tick back up in the near future, but not to previous levels like in 1960, when the rate was 4.3.

“I expect that pregnant pause is probably about over,” she said, because many who have delayed parenthood so far may now be ready to have kids.

Despite the change, Utah’s unique, dominant culture stemming from Latter-day Saint church members continues to affect those living in the state, fostering a welcoming atmosphere and a focus on families, Perlich said.

Utah has maintained its longtime status as the youngest state in the nation. As of last year, its median age was 30.7, up from 29.6 in the earlier five-year period.

Other insights in the release

Utah’s median household income has grown. It was more than $68,300 in the five-year period ending in 2018, compared to about $63,500 as of 2013.

But the annual income varies significantly by county, with the lowest statewide in rural Iron County — at about $46,800 — and the highest in resort-speckled Summit County, hovering above $100,400.

In the state overall, family income has risen to more than $77,700, while nonfamily households brought in about half that amount.