The baby boom generation, those Americans born between 1946 and 1964 to parents in recovery from World War II and anxious to start their “real lives,” changed everything.
The largest generation in American history required new schools at every turn, from elementary through college. When we got to college and out into the workplace, we changed American culture. We wore our hair long and our skirts short. We protested for equal rights for minorities and women. We were having none of the traditional mores about sex and marriage, and – for better or for worse – succeeding generations have followed suit.
For the most part, we presided over strong economies as our nation solidified what we have come to think of as our rightful place in the world.
We boomers did all this, inpart, because there were so many of us, the largest generation in American history – until we weren’t.
Statistics vary, of course, but millennials – sometimes called the Echo Generation as children of the boomers – will outnumber boomers by next year, if not before. So what, you may ask. Isn’t that the way the world works?
Yes, but there is a problem.
Millennials are not yet reproducing themselves in sufficient numbers to keep the American economy humming steadily along, and it appears they never will.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics reported earlier this month that the number of babies born in the United States is at a 30-year low after falling for three years in a row. The birth rate is lowest for women aged 30 and under, historically the ages at which women most frequently become mothers. Women 30 and up are having babies, but starting later often means a woman will have fewer children. Last year, the U.S. birth rate was just over 60 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. Needless to say, boomer women are long out of the baby business.
Industrialized nations in Europe and Asia have long grappled with declining birth rates, resulting in aging populations and slowing economies. Fewer young people mean fewer workers contributing to the economy, with the last boomers reaching 65 in 2029.
Remaining boomers will not be contributing to economy at levels anywhere near what they reached during their primes – if they contribute at all. In addition, they buy fewer homes, cars, clothing and everything else than younger people do.
Compounding the decline in birth rates is a decline in immigration. For many reasons, including political policy decisions, numbers of immigrants coming to the United States is also declining and impacting our economy and our birth rate. While the U.S.economy has grown an average of three percent annually since WWII, it has not met that level since 2005. The Federal Reserve predicts 2.7 percent growth this year and 2.4 percent for 2019.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” aside, we cannot make women have babies. It is one of life’s most private decisions, and its timing depends on parents’ unique circumstances. Economists suspect the Great Recession has delayed parenthood for some and is also keeping families smaller.
In short, it is a complicated issue with diverse causes and ramifications spanning generations. It is fair to say, though, that public policy at all levels and in many different areas is critically important to families, including access to health care and child care. Like millions of American families, both Dickson parents worked full time when the Precious Jewels were growing up, and we simply could not have done that without safe and reliable child care.
Demographics are trends, not events, and the United States’ birth rate is clearly on a downhill slope. Our policy makers must think strategically, not reactively, to keep our economy humming despite fewer workers in the pipeline.
Heaven forbid that we become a nation where Depends outsell Pampers. Japan has already reached that benchmark with an aging population and a slowing economy.