Plummeting Fertility Rates In The United States: 1800 To 2020

Over recent decades, the average age of first-time mothers has shifted upwards.
Over recent decades, the average age of first-time mothers has shifted upwards.

America’s fertility rate has significantly declined for the past two centuries. Factors such as urbanization, public health improvements, rising family incomes, industrialization, and higher women’s wages have considerably altered decisions on child-bearing in the US. In the period between 1790 and 1810, population growth in the new nation (including migration) was over 3% per annum. Fertility was notably high in several areas in North America, including New England and the northern Middle Atlantic regions. The regions also had benign mortality conditions compared to most of Europe. A combination of such factors coupled with significant net immigration in the early 17th century and after 1720 led to relatively high rates of population increases.

Demographic Transition

Nearly all economically developed nations have experienced a demographic shift from high to low levels of both fertility and mortality. The trend has been observed in the United States since at least about 1800. American women reaching child-bearing age in 1800 had, on average of seven to eight live births in the course of their reproductive life. The number fell to an average of two to three children by 1930. A similar decline was observed in other industrialized countries. The pattern, however, reversed after the Great Depression when the “baby boom” was witnessed. Between 1940 and 1960, the fertility rate rose again by about 60%, and the cohort measures of completed fertility rose by around 45%. The rise cannot be attributed solely to the World War II phenomenon as fertility rates had been on the rise well before mobilization and remained quite high in the 15 years that elapsed after the V-Day. A decline in fertility rates resumed after 1960. The fertility rates stabilized in the mid-1970s. By 2010, completed child-bearing hovered around two children with a significant shift in the timing of marriage, the composition of parents, and the timing of first birth.

Early Declines in Fertility Rates

Although the broad fact of the decline in fertility rates is well established, the onset of fertility declines still remains a disputed subject. A number of experts believe the fertility decline begun in the late eighteenth century. Based on that assessment, fertility rates in the US began to decline nearly 75 years before similar trends were observed in other developed nations. The decline in fertility in the United States is unique and in some ways, similar to France. The trend is different in Germany, England, and Italy, where fertility began declining after industrialization. According to Hacker’s revised series, fertility rates (in the white population) declined slightly between 1800 and 1840. The total fertility rate was 7.04 versus 6.95 in 1843. Marital fertility rates also began to decline after 1860.

Cohort fertility rates based on census questions suggest that fertility rates started to fall significantly in the mid to late nineteenth century. Women born in 1850 had an average of five live births in the course of their child-bearing years. Women born 25 years later in 1875 had an average of 3.3 births in their lifetime. The declining fertility rate continued to drop over the years with women born in the early twentieth century averaging 2.3 births during their lifetimes.

Fertility Rates in the Twentieth Century

There was a reduction in child-bearing seemingly gained momentum among women born in the 1870s with the trend persisting throughout until the Great depression. The decline among women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was primarily due to spacing and stopping as opposed to changes in the age of marriage. The distribution of childbirths shifted from near uniform to highly concentrated in the same period. In 1910, two-thirds of ever-married women bore two or fewer children, and about 23% remained childless. Methods used in gauging fertility in the twentieth century were more accurate compared to previous periods. A spike in fertility rates occurred in the cohorts of women born from 1925 to 1940 who reached a fertile age from the early 1940s to the early 1970s. The phenomenon was then named post-WWII baby boom. The departure from the previous trend was not a short-lived phenomenon reflecting postponed births from World War II or the Great Depression. Between 1940 and 1960, the total fertility rates increased by more than 50%, and cohort measures of complete fertility increased by about 45%. Child-bearing increased from 2.3 in low-fertility cohorts to 3.3 among groups of women born roughly a generation later in around 1930. Childlessness in ever-married women dropped from 23% to 8%, and the number of women having more than two children increased. The share of ever-married women rose from 90% to 95%, and the mean age during the first marriage in the 1935 cohort was nearly two years younger at 20.7 years. Experts believe that the rise in fertility rates during the baby boom was achieved by both earlier and more universal marriage and by married women giving birth to more children.

The Fertility Rate in the Early 1960s and Early 1970s

The increases fertility rates subsided between the early 1960s and early 1970s. The rates fell to around replacement levels and were relatively lower than those of low-fertility cohorts born at the beginning of the twentieth century. After 1960, about 35% of women reaching child-bearing age had two children compared to 22% in the previous generation with child-bearing distribution collapsing around a two-child mode. Low fertility rates were also achieved as a result of more women remaining unmarried and a significant increase in childlessness among married women.

Fertility Rate From 1980 to 2020

The period since 1980 has exhibited a considerable degree of volatility and contains two local peaks in 1990 and 2007. The post-2007 fertility decline has produced the lowest levels of general fertility rate in recorded history. There has been a decline in the birth rate among teenagers in the country since the early 1990s. The trend is attributed to supply and demand factors including and not limited to more affordable contraception and access to more reliable long-acting and reversible methods of contraception, and the effect of new media on teen fertility choices. The teen birth rate fell from 62 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 years in 1991 to about 19 in 2017, representing a striking 69% decline. The birth rates for women aged 20 to 24 also dipped in the same period, with the decline gaining momentum in 2008. In 2017, women aged 20 to 24 had a birth rate that was below that of women aged 25 to 29 and 30 to 34. A stark contrast to 1980 when women aged 20 to 24 had the highest birth rate. Interestingly birth rates for women aged 30 and above have increased steadily since 1980. The trend has been aided by the delayed age of first marriage, first birth, and infertility treatment, which has enabled birth at a later age.

The year 2016 marked the first time in recorded history when women of 30 to 34 years of age had the highest birth rate. The marital status of women since 1980 has also changed significantly. The birth rate in married women fell throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. On the other hand, the birth rate in unmarried women rose. By 1994 about a third of births were from unmarried mothers. The non-marital rate stabilized briefly a few years after, but increased in the mid-2000s, reaching a peak in 2007. In the period after 2007, the non-marital rate has declined, and births to married women have increased significantly. The decline in fertility in the last decade, therefore, cannot be attributed to a reduction among married women. In the period between 2016 and 2018, the fertility rate continued to decline from 1.816 births per woman in 2016 to 1.776 births per woman in 2018. The birth rate in 2019 improved to 1,778 births per woman, representing a 0.11% increase from 2018. Experts believe that the probability of a massive rebound in the fertility rate in 2020 and the foreseeable future is low.

The Impact of Immigration and Unemployment on Fertility Rates

Historically, one of the factors that drove birthrates in the US was high immigration, which added young people with a relatively strong desire to have more children compared to native-born Americans. In recent years the overall growth in the immigrant population has slowed, and more significant proportions of migrants are now coming from Asia compared to Latin America. Migrants from Asia generally have lower fertility rates compared to native-born Americans. Consequently, births to new arrivals are slowing. The fertility rate among Hispanics in the US has also been on the decline. The recent recession has also been blamed for the trend.

The high state-level unemployment has been found to reduce childbirth among women, particularly those in their early twenties, during the period of high unemployment. The effect on such a group also reduces their fertility through to the age of 40 years. Higher female labor force participation has interestingly been associated with higher birth rates. Experts believe that policies that allow women to combine work and parenthood are likely to increase birth rates significantly. Systems that enable women to work and have children at the same time with ease will not only encourage more female participation in the labor force but also encourage them to have more children.


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