The baby "boomlet" that demographers started predicting in 2014 turned out to be a mirage, despite a healthier economy, good employment numbers and lots of women in prime childbearing age. Instead of those conditions adding up to more babies, as they traditionally have, the U.S. birth rate dropped — and it's not clear whether women today are simply delaying having children or choosing to forgo it altogether.
The answer to that question could have a far-reaching impact on the country, affecting future job markets and economic growth as well as social programs that provide for the elderly. It could change how families cope with aging relatives, experts say.
And because births to immigrants have historically bolstered America's birth rate, immigration policies may be shaping that future, too.
In 2014, experts from the U.S. Census Bureau, Demographic Intelligence and other groups noted the economic recovery and predicted the U.S. birth rate would rise as a peak number of millennial women moved from their early to late 20s. That's what history told them.
"We are seeing the opposite," said Samuel Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence (DI) and author of its U.S. Fertility Forecast. DI's most recent forecast says births will have dropped about 2.8 percent by this year's end to 3.84 million, compared to 2016's 3.95 million. When 2017 actual births are counted, the total fertility rate in America will likely hit a 38-year low of 1.77 children per woman, well below the "replacement rate" of 2.01 children per woman.
DI expects actual births to fall short of predictions for 2017 by 210,000 babies — and from 2015 to 2017, 310,000 fewer babies than would have been predicted by traditional demographic models. The drop is being credited to fewer births to teens and women in their 20s. But it's bucking expectations based on traditional factors like the economy and employment, and experts are scratching their heads, unsure why it's happening and whether it's a long-term trend.
One answer may lie in reported rates of sexual activity among young adults ages 18 to 25. In 2010-2012, 91 percent said they'd had sex in the last year; that fell to 78 percent between 2014-2016. Reported frequency of sex also declined, DI reported.
That shift is one of many theories regarding drivers of the decline in births being noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others. Abortions are down, so that's not it, several experts told the Deseret News. Contraception might account for some of the decline. But preliminary data from the General Social Survey suggests less sex itself may be more significant in the reduction.
W. Bradford Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar for American Enterprise Institute, cited a recent Pew Research Center study on reduced sexual activity as he wondered if "declines in young adult relationships and sex are playing an important role in ongoing declines in births. It seems like young adults are more hesitant to or less able to move into relationships today, even net of economic factors."
Or maybe San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge's research has it right, and it's the rise of smartphones and social media "fueling the relational disconnect we're seeing among today's young adults," Wilcox added.
The share of young adults with smartphones has risen from around two-thirds in 2012 to 98 percent today.
Experts are just as unsure about the future effects of falling birth rates as they are about the causes.
"It's a mixed bag. On the one hand, I think we're going to see the rate of nonmarital childbearing fall, since declines in births are concentrated among less educated, unmarried women. On the other hand, we also may end up seeing more women ending up involuntarily childless," Wilcox said.
American expectation has always been "that bigger, wealthier generations are coming up behind the current generation," Sturgeon said. "This may be a kind of day of reckoning. We don't have bigger, and if it continues as it is, we won't have wealthier. It might be a resetting of how we operate. Current data suggest that millennials are not doing as well economically as their parents at the same age."
He said having a smaller cohort of young people who are making less money could put more strain on the social safety net, particularly programs that help elderly people.
We are already seeing that the category within the population that is growing most is older people, Sturgeon said. He added, "65 and older is where we are getting most of the growth. … Potentially — I'm not saying it's likely — it will not sustain growth for the economy.
"We didn't have to be as careful when we had bigger, wealthier generations coming," he said. "We could in some respects kind of kick the can (of policy challenges) down the road. This makes it harder to do that."
Researchers at Boston College's Center for Retirement Research expect some impact on pay-as-you-go programs like Social Security and Medicare, as younger workers provide the money that helps retirees. Geoff Sanzenbacher, associate director at the Center for Retirement Research, said a drop in the fertility rate would mean that in the future, there will be fewer people paying in to support those taking out benefits. "That eventually leads to depletion of the system's funds."
Projections already say the Social Security Trust Fund could be depleted around 2030. Assuming the programs survive that, a lower fertility rate could create a similar challenge further down the road, he said. The recent drop in fertility "is not going to be a problem for probably 20 to 30 years, when those (babies) start to be the ones who are working. The most recent declines aren't really going to show up in terms of whether Social Security runs out of money in 2030."
Another future issue could be a gap in the country's ability to physically care for the elderly, Sanzenbacher said. Informal caregivers — mostly relatives — provide the bulk of care for the elderly today, and problems are already occurring because of the nature of the baby boomer generation. Boomers have a higher divorce rate than previous generations, so some adult children are already being tasked to care for two households of parents. Boomers also had fewer kids.
"Will we be able to make up that gap with formal caregivers? That's a problem worth thinking about," Sanzenbacher said.
While some experts ponder potential for negative outcomes, the nonprofit membership organization Negative Population Growth — which, as its name implies, opposes "overpopulation" — released a white paper this month by Edwin S. Rubenstein that sees good news in the shrinking fertility numbers.
"Most mainstream economists find this prospect daunting, as it portends lower GDP growth," Rubenstein wrote. "Should it continue, NPG's goal of a sustainable U.S. economy, in which the utilization of scarce resources equals the ability of our eco-system to replenish those resources, will be attainable."
The impact of reduced immigration is the biggest wild card, since immigration policy changes with political will and winds, and it's hard to predict what numbers or policies will look like even a few years down the road.
"It is a concern," Sanzenbacher said. If births to native-born women stay lower and are not bolstered by typically higher birth rates among immigrants, America could face challenges similar to those in parts of Europe and countries like Japan, where a small working-age population struggles to meet all the needs of an elderly population and economic growth is limited.