The world's population is still rising rapidly, up to 7.37 billion people as of this writing. However, we Americans are not keeping up our share of population growth.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population survey, almost half of U.S. women (47.6%) between the ages of 15 and 44 were childless in 2014. That is up from 46.5% just two years ago, and is the highest number since the Census Bureau’s tracking began in 1976.
Many of the childless women are still in their prime childbearing years. In the 25-29 age range, 49.6% of American women were childless in 2014 — another peak number. 28.9% of women between 30-34 years of age were childless, which was an increase over 2012 and approaching the all-time high.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 2013 birth rates for women aged 15-44 were 62.9 for every 1,000 women. The fertility rate in America had dropped for six straight years as of 2013 and was at 1.86, which represents a declining population. To keep population numbers stable, the fertility rate needs to be at 2.1.
What is at the root of this shift? It may be economic in nature. The lower fertility rate does correlate reasonably well with the Great Recession and its aftereffects. Families may be delaying having children feeling that they simply cannot afford them at this time — and with the economy still slow and wages flat, the population growth numbers may not improve for quite some time.
Women appear to be increasingly analyzing the challenges associated with having children, and how their lives will be affected. Given the wage gap and childcare costs versus the ability to share childcare duties with their partners, it is not a huge surprise that women are increasingly delaying having children, or perhaps deciding not to have children at all.
If that trend continues, how will the economy be affected? We can make some reasonable guesses. Over the very long term, a falling population rate would mean that fewer workers would be supporting a larger population of retirees. Imagine that the trend of the Baby Boomer's retirement continues through the millennials and onto the succeeding generation (whatever we decide to call them).
Eventually, the social obligations to retirees would put huge tax burdens on younger workers and potentially be a drag on the economy. There would also be fewer consumers, and, as approximately 70% of the economy is consumer-driven, a sinking population could result in an even greater drag on the economy — especially if lower fertility spreads throughout the world and within the developing nations.
What about the short-term effect? Consider that the Department of Labor shows that women constituted 47% of the total U.S. labor force in 2010 and, based on trends, women were predicted to account for 51% of the increase in the labor force through 2018. Women are being absorbed into the workforce at a slightly higher rate than men, and while this statistic is not directly connected to the birth rate, it makes sense that more women could be opting for a career path instead of a mommy path.
If there really is an economic connection, it is possible that once the economy does recover, more families will decide to have children and the situation will reverse. However, do not be surprised if more women simply make lifestyle choices that are only partially influenced by economics. Women will assess their options and make their choices with a focus on greater life fulfillment.