The endorphin rush of my morning run is a thing of beauty. Happily addicted to the pleasure hormones surging through my being, my creativity skyrockets. Recently, I found myself pondering American birth rate declines over the last five decades as Halsey’s “Bad at Love” pumped through my earbuds. Her lyrics struck a deep chord.
Look, I don’t mean to frustrate, but I….. Always make the same mistakes, yeah I….. Always make the same mistakes ’cause….. I’m bad at love (ooh-ooh)….. But you can’t blame me for tryin’….. You know I’d be lyin’ sayin’….. You were the one (ooh-ooh)….. That could finally fix me….. Lookin’ at my history….. I’m bad at love…..
Given that singer-songwriters tend to be autobiographical in their lyrics, she is likely highlighting her romantic dead ends and caldesacs. We can all identify with her relationship rubble. But is Halsey making a bigger point? Are we, as a people bad at love? Does that explain our declining birth rates? Check out the live birth and general fertility rates in America from 1970-2019 in Figure 2 below.
An argument erupted over the relevance of the data. Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine two learned folks at the Brookings Institution assert “Will births in the US rebound? Probably not.” However, Alia Wong at the Atlantic took the other side of the debate with The Misplaced Fears About the United States’ Declining Fertility Rate.
For this observer, I see trouble ahead. Allow me to make my case. The birth rates for every age group declined in 2020 versus 2019. Figure 3 below. Not good.
Figure 3 – Birth Rates by Age Groups 2019 v. 2020
In historical context, American women averaged more than seven children until the early decades of the 19th century. After 1900, average fertility declined as infant mortality rates fell, interrupted only by the baby boom following World War II. The US experienced another drop in the total fertility rate (TFR) in the 1970s, caused in part by delayed marriage, expanded contraceptive use, and new abortion laws.
Figure 4 – Historical Birth Rates by Age Group 1937-2019
The total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of children a woman would have in her lifetime based on the childbearing rates of women in a population in a given year. In 2020, the U.S. TFR dropped to 1.64, the lowest level ever recorded. (See Fiqure 5 – Historical TFR below)
Fiqure 5 – Birth Rates per Woman (TFR) 1937-2019
A year or two is not a trend. Unfortunately, we have been below the population replacement rate since the early 70s. When is the trend, a trend? Are we loving each other to extinction?
I renew my Halsey-inspired question. Are we bad at love? Or is the decline in birth rates an economic decision? Do women feel as though they have to choose between a career or children? Are men the issue? What about the breakdown of marriages? Whatever the reason, the current birth rate trend is not our friend.
As a matter of full disclosure, I fathered and raised four wonderful children into adulthood. Two girls. Two boys. They are all amazing. I couldn’t imagine my life without them. In my opinion, the decision to have kids is huge. I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice not to have kids. I am only asking questions to spark an honest, open discussion regarding a societal trend.
In the best spirit of my post, allow me to congratulate Halsey on the birth of her first child, Ender Riley this year. It seems Ms. Halsey has gotten better at love.