In another example of my finely tuned prognosticative powers, I forecast a year ago that the country would see a spike in births around this time. A year of semi-isolation with spouses and others appropriately significant, with Netflix, Zoom and little else to distract, would surely mean a bump in business for maternity wards.
It would be a repeat of the Great Blackout of 1965, in which 30 million residents of the northeastern U.S. lost power for about 13 hours one November evening and, as a result, New York City saw an unusual and otherwise unexplainable jump in births roughly nine months later.
Except that it never actually happened. The region’s birth rate was later shown to have been well within the norm. As Richard J. Udry of the New York Times wrote in August 1966 of the blackout baby myth, it “is evidently pleasing to many people to fantasize that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation.”
And so it was with the pandemic of 2020-21: No COVID copulation escalation, even though the opportunity and motivation to give it a go more enthusiastically than usual should have been present over the past 14 months. Or so I thought. And I was hardly alone.
But, in fact, the birth rate dropped.
The pandemic probably can’t take credit for that, either, though. The birth rate has been dropping for several years, both across the U.S. and here in Kern County.
Zero population growth advocates might consider that a good thing — the fewer the people on the planet, the less the demand for earth’s finite resources — but economists do not.
When the birth rate drops, our so-called replacement rate lags — meaning that we fail to produce enough babies for a generation to fully replace itself.
The National Center for Health Statistics says the U.S. birth rate fell for the sixth straight year in 2020. After a jump in 2014, the U.S. rate has fallen an average of 2 percent per year. Just in raw numbers, 2020 had the lowest number of births since 1979.
That trend is playing out in Kern County. Even as the county’s population continues to increase steadily toward 1 million — there are about 915,000 of us now — it’s losing ground when it comes to the replacement rate. Kern’s population has increased 3.6 percent since 2015, but its birth rate during that same time frame has dropped a full 13 percent.
Richard Gearhart, an associate professor of economics at CSUB, says the potential ramifications for the country are many. For starters: Not enough workers to meet demand.
“As the birth rate falls in the future there are fewer workers, and if there are fewer workers, that puts a bigger burden on existing workers,” he said. “Some of these pensions, Social Security and Medicare that we've promised to previous generations will be unmet. So what that means is higher taxes or lower spending in other places.”
In other words, having more babies spreads around the responsibility for financing the retirement years of guys like me. Fewer babies, more tax obligation for the ones that do come into this world.
The statistical likelihood of bringing more large-scale job creators into the world also drops, Gearhart said.
“When you decrease the birth rate you decrease the probability of having multiple billionaires,” he said. “Instead of 10 Elon Musks, you might only have five. You might have only five Jeff Bezoses. You just decrease the number of opportunities to hit on these people that drive economic growth.
“Those people are the innovators and major employers. They are the entrepreneurs, the ones who are going to grow technologies that massively increase our economic growth experience.”
Some might argue that the world would be a better place with fewer Musks and Bezoses, but Gearhart’s point stands. We’d get fewer of everything.
Only 2 percent fewer per year, which might not seem devastating. The cumulative effect adds up, though. Trends matter.
A sustained decline in the birth rate could also spur increased investment in automation, such as self-serve kiosks, robotic kitchens and assembly lines even more mechanized than they are now. That will cost jobs in certain sectors of the economy.
But higher-paying jobs that require higher education or special training may be left vacant.
One possible solution is increasing immigration, but the country’s foreign-born population has been flat — less than 0.5 percent growth in 2019.
“It doesn't seem like we have much of an appetite for increasing immigration,” Gearhart said. “We have kind of a weird tiered system with immigration. We prioritize very low skill workers over high skilled workers. … We place severe quotas on high skilled immigration — the engineers, the data analysts, computer scientists, medical professionals.
“Smart immigration policy that incentivizes middle skilled immigration, especially from our southern border, would be massively helpful to offset this, because if not, we face a really stagnant future.”
Of course, we could always go back to good, old-fashioned baby making, but a variety of factors have dialed back the birth rate. One is a trend toward embarking on parenthood later in life; another is having fewer children when couples finally do take that plunge. The average age at which women bore their first child has jumped from just over 21 in 1970 to 27 in 2018, and the average number of children per family has dropped from 2.33 in 1960 to 1.93 in 2020.
The birth rate won’t pick up until those trends ease back a little.
In the end, it’s all about making babies, which is about as personal a decision as we can make as civilized humans. The nation’s future economic health is probably not a factor in that decision, but maybe it should be. Babies aren’t just bundles of pure innocence and promise, they’re also future consumers, future employers, future innovators.
The economy needs all of those things, whether they’re manufactured here or imported.