The rate of births in the United States fell to a new record low in 2020, according to data released on Feb. 7 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There were 3.61 million children born in the United States in 2020, the lowest total since 1980, according to data drawn from birth certificates (pdf) and compiled by the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System.
The rate of births among women aged 15 to 44 declined by 4 percent compared to 2019, to an all-time low of 56 births per 1,000 females, according to the data.
The decline in the U.S. birth rate and total births continues a trend that started in 2008, according to birth certificate data. Even though the U.S. population has grown by 100 million from 1980 to 2020, there were fewer births in the United States in 2021 than there were three decades ago.
Birth rates fell for women aged 15 to 44 and remained steady for the youngest (10 to 14) and oldest (45 to 49) groups studied. The birth rates declined the most among teenagers aged 15 to 19. There were 15.4 births per 1,000 teenage girls in this age group in 2020, down by 8 percent from 2019 and another record low. The teenage birth rate has declined every year since 2007.
According to University of Utah professor of Family and Communication Studies Nick Wolfinger, one reason for this decrease in birth rates is that younger Americans are in sexual relationships less often.
“A big part of the lower rates of sex are that people are just less coupled than they were 30 years ago, less likely to have boyfriend or girlfriend,” Wolfinger said.
But that’s only half the story, Wolfinger said. Married couples are also having less sex. It isn’t exactly clear what causes these trends, but there are several theories.
Lower testosterone, more time spent playing video games, and changing relationship dynamics from social media might all play at least some role, he said.
In 1990, sex, teen pregnancy, and drug use reached a peak, Wolfinger said. But since then, these behaviors have generally declined.
“A lot of those changes are not all negative,” he said.
In some ways, risky behaviors decreased or migrated online, Wolfinger said. This change had many effects. Rates of teen pregnancy, rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and even rates of rape have decreased.
“As internet porn became a thing, those same years’ rates of rape declined a lot,” he said.
But there are good risky behaviors that have declined as well, Wolfinger said. Many people have avoided starting relationships, getting married, and having children.
These “social goods” make society more stable and create its future, he said. When people don’t participate in them, communities grow weaker. Right now, the United States doesn’t have enough people to fill jobs. To some extent, the labor shortage can be traced to lower birth rates.
“You want these kids. Children are a social good. You want people to have children,” Wolfinger said. “There’s a lot of downstream consequences here.”
According to Wolfinger’s research, actively religious people are the most likely to have children.
The study of society-wide sexual activity is a relatively new scientific field, so researchers have relatively little data to examine, Wolfinger said. As a result, it’s hard to make predictions about where the United States will be if people don’t have children.
But the few points of data he offered were disheartening. Japan has had a birth rate below the replacement rate since 1974. The island nation now faces an elderly population with a far smaller next generation to support them.
Wolfinger said he visited Japan with his wife a few years ago.
“At one point, we were in the mall, and the mall had three stores where you could buy clothes for your dogs, but no stores selling baby clothes,” he said.