Not a Crisis, But a Reckoning

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Earlier this week, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that the U.S. birth rate has dropped four percent in 2020 — the sixth year of decline, and the lowest birthrate since 1979. The birth rate remains “below replacement,” a technical way of saying that the next generation won’t be the same size as the one before, which, to be clear, has generally been the case since 1971.

None of this is surprising. But I’m increasingly frustrated with the way these statistics are reported and discussed — often in a way that seems to treat the desire and ability to have children (and how many) as a switch that turns on and off, instead of an incredibly complex series of overlapping considerations, decisions, and non-decisions.

At its worst, this type of reporting is stenography plus the most basic amount of reporting — which, purposefully or not, turns stats into sensationalism.

At NPR, for example, the statistics were reproduced largely without context, save two brief concluding paragraphs concerning the declining immigration rate, which countries historically “use to compensate for an aging workforce and population declines.”

The piece in The New York Times is significantly more robust, gesturing to historic birth declines in “uncertain economic times” and interviewing a 25-year-old who’s delaying thoughts of family in part because of student loan debt and the contemporary cost of having children.

The Washington Post included an interview with a couple who’d had to stop infertility treatments because of the pandemic. The CBS write-up quotes a demographer calling the “phenomenon” a “crisis.” Reuters briefly gestures to European countries experiencing similar declines. CNBC includes the phrase “some experts say that a decline in birth rates could represent a lack of vital resources like housing and food among those demographics.” CNN quotes a demographer who suggests that this moment could have the opposite social impacts of the baby boom. Business Insider reports that “women are taking a raincheck on babies,” but proceeds to provide a fairly nuanced take on women having more access to education, employment, and general autonomy.

If you read all of these pieces, the picture of this “phenomenon” — which is actually “a slight acceleration in a decades’ long shift” — comes into focus. But most people read one article, not twelve. I recognize that many of these articles are intended as quick, quasi-breaking news items — a form with little space for contextualization. But what if we decide that some statistics, stories, and survey results aren’t just ill-suited, but inappropriate for this form? What if the narrative they communicate actually declarifies the larger issue?

Unemployment figures and the stock market fluctuations are often reported in the same decontextualized way — and are often wholly misleading, even gaslighting, when it comes to lived experience of the economy. The same holds true, in slightly different ways, for stats on obesity, infant mortality, immigration, crime rates, drug use, standardized test scores, voting rates, life expectancy, and, of course, birth rates.

Yes, we should talk these things. But we should resist the inclination — in form, and in content — to talk about them simply. So in the case of birthrates, what could that look like? Not just in the way these numbers get reported, but the way we discuss them (online, in person, with ourselves, in our echoing brains) afterwards?

1) Numbers are the beginning, not the end, of the story

In most stories, the numbers are the centerpiece. I get it! They’re the news peg! Usually these numbers deployed in some version of “Here’s a stat from this year, and here’s how it compares to numbers from previous years.” Some reporting adds “Here’s what was happening in those years” — aka, here’s why there was a previous dip in birthrates after The Depression, here’s what happened in the post-World War II period, even, in some cases, here’s when women first gained wide access to contraception, etc. etc.

This sort of context is often treated as a sufficient: so long as you talk about declines, inclines, percents, and how they differ between races, you’ve done a good job of situating the story. But the numbers are the very beginning of a larger story, — and grossly incomplete on their own.

2) Behaviors are the result of accumulated information, observation, and anxiety

It’s easy to point to COVID’s direct and indirect effects on birthrates, and many articles do: people are scared, people are having less sex, people are meeting fewer people, parents are uncertain of their economic futures. All of that makes sense because those lived realities are right there punching us in the face every day, and help account for the pronounced birthrate decline of the past year. Yet this sort of reporting does very little to explain consistent declines.

Of all of the articles cited above, only one acknowledges that the millennial generation perfectly overlaps with the years considered to be “prime” birthing years. It seems appropriate to consider: what forces and anxieties were brewing in previous generations and becoming overwhelming in this one? How does a generation that’s internalized that the other shoe is always about to drop conceive of the decision to have children differently?

This approach feels particularly important when looking to the relationship between birth rates and childcare costs, healthcare costs, student debt, economic precarity, or climate change. Some [boomers] will argue that “children have never been cheap” or “parents in precarious positions have always had children,” or “people still have kids even when they’re scared for the end of the world.” And all of these things are true. But there’s a difference between a one-time experience and an accreted one: between living with a year of economic uncertainty and feeling certain that you’ll never find stability or pay off your debt, between being frightened by a climate event and convinced we’re headed for climate catastrophe, between a flare of anger in the face of sexism and decades of cataloging its accumulated effects in your life.

3) Education, Choice, Patriarchy

The most recent birthrate stats are broken down by race and age, but there’s nothing about class. It’s more difficult to collect that sort of data, and even surveys (like those cited to in this Brookings birthrate analysis) are ill-equipped for this sort of analysis, because most Americans have a distorted idea of their own class position, and so much of the lived experience of class hinges on location, family wealth, access to credit, and levels of savings and debt.

What we do know, though, is that women who go to college delay having children. So how do we unpack a stat like that? One interpretation is that when women go to college, more life paths open up to them — and those life paths have been expanded, over the last, oh, fifty years, by various feminist advances, from ready access to birth control to the ability to sign a lease or open a bank account.

You can call those shifts “increased autonomy” — or women being able to live like men. That’s one layer. But many of those college-educated millennial women are also reaching childbearing age with 1) accompanying realities of massive student debt; 2) only recently stabilized or still unstable finances (with little to no savings); 3) infertility issues and costs that may or may not be correlated with age; and 4) ever-clarifying understandings of the way that the workplace, even workplaces with women in leadership positions, treats working mothers.

There is no stat to express deep disillusionment with the fantasy of “work-life balance” and the myth of equal partnership. There is no number that adequately communicates the ways in which our economy is hostile to women, and even more hostile to mothers, who also face contradictory, exhausting, and exacting standards of what “good” mothering should look like. And there is so little good data to convey the sheer amount of money spent by families confronting infertility.

I don’t think people are blind to these difficulties. Quite the inverse: if you’ve watched your parents or your peers struggle and struggle and suffer under them, the scale balancing the desire for children and those realities begins to tip.

Of course, parenting has always been hard — and, for many, it has never been an actual choice. You could argue that education, feminism, birth control, and the very gradual normalization of childlessness has allowed it to become more of one, and more and more adults are secure in making the “choice” that’s right for them. But even that formulation still strikes me as both imprecise and incomplete. Is it really a “choice” to not have kids when the ideological and economic landscape is this unforgiving?

4) Other Rich Countries are Not That Instructive

Mention the economic considerations undergirding the declining US birthrate and you will likely have some dude — always a dude — counter with the “there’s still a declining birthrate in Scandinavia” argument. But you cannot meaningful extrapolate the ways in which policies in one declining birthrate country would work in another — particularly countries as many fundamental ideological differences as, say, Sweden and the United States.

There’s no one, fixable issue undergirding the U.S.’s birth rate decline. It’s our work structure — and our lack of childcare infrastructure, and our student debt, and our general lack of safety nets, and our decline in collectivism, and our hostility towards women, and our ever growing consumer debt loads, and declining religious affiliation, and birth control, and climate despair. All of these factors overlaps and compound and it’s straight up bad analysis to suggest otherwise.

I appreciated Jill Filipovic’s point here:

We should reknit the social safety net because people keep falling through it — not just because the birthrate is declining. Each of these stabilizations has the potential to have ramifications on other parts of the problem: as Darcy Lockman points out in All the Rage, one of the few proven means to meaningfully distribute labor in the heterosexual home is for fathers to take prolonged paternity leave — ideally, at least part of it by themselves. Address one part of the issue, and you at least begin to address part of another.

But just generally, we should make policies that are less shitty for women, and also less shitty for families, because they are a net good for society — not because they will (or won’t) have immediate impacts on the birthrate.

5) What if this wasn’t a crisis?

This is the most difficult paradigm shift in our conversations about the declining birthrate — but also the most essential. Why, on a planet that’s increasingly struggling to support its current population, in a world in which hundreds of thousands are fleeing instability in search of stable homes and jobs, in a society in which we ostensibly value autonomy and independence and feminist empowerment, are we positioning a declining birth rate as a “crisis”?

Take the situation in Japan, where many women are opting not to have children because their work and familial culture refuses to shift in a way that doesn’t make motherhood miserable. Is that a crisis — or is a reckoning?

And just as “crisis” rhetoric around what’s happening in Japan has to do with nativist and exclusionary understandings of who gets counted as Japanese, the United States wouldn’t have a “replacement rate” problem (or burgeoning worries of “who will take care of our aging boomers”) if we welcomed more refugees and immigrants. The fear, in other words, is of our own making, and deeply rooted in narrow understandings of how a nation can and should sustain itself. We’re so wed to the principles of exponential growth — of the “right” sort of American — that we can’t even envision how fewer births might be part of the way forward.

None of the above is intended as a hardline argument so much as an invitation to approach these sorts of stats as entire suitcases of questions to unpack. What’s going on here and how long has this been going on and who, specifically, has it been going on with, but also is this a problem? Is it value neutral? Is there potential for new ways of organizing society?

I know that some demographers do think of these stats in this way, and the excerpts of their conversations that end up in various news articles often fail to communicate the nuance of their approaches. A news story can’t do the work of an academic article, or a book, or even a 6000 word feature. But short doesn’t have to mean simple — in headline, in context, and in the questions the article poses.

Zoom out, and fifty years of declining birthrates is an objectively fascinating and illuminating area of study, worthy of all the curiosity and openness to complexity that we can direct its way. Zoom in, and there is so much joy and suffering, regret and ambivalence, hope and resentment. I’ve seen “mixed methods” analysis — e.g., a mix of stats, context, and reporting — described as the most accurate way of getting at an issue, because it has “both head and heart.”

Which is precisely what an issue as personal and societal as the declining birth rate deserves. On Mother’s Day, these numbers have the potential to start so many conversations about the way we’ve failed to make this country hospitable to parenting, but also what child-rearing can and should look like, the purposes and values attached to population growth, and more.

I don’t think it’s right to call the declining birthrate a “crisis.” But there are so many other ways to frame it as a conversation that no one — no matter their age or gender or personal feelings about parenting — should be able to ignore.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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