My colleague Megan Brenan recently reported on a remarkable finding. While the U.S. fertility rate has been trending down over time, over nine in 10 American adults either say they have children, don’t have children but wish they did (if they are older), or don’t have children but still want to (if they are younger). Only 8% of all Americans say they don’t have children and are content with not having them. That number is about where it was when Gallup asked this same question 10 years ago. Additionally, the percentage of American adults who say that three or more is the ideal number of children has been going up. And the desire for larger numbers of children is highest in the youngest age group -- the group the nation is depending on for producing children in the years ahead.
This is an instance in which the underlying attitudinal context (desire to have children) doesn’t totally match with real-world behavior (actually having children, particularly since the Great Recession). As Megan put it, “Americans’ views of the ideal may not be their personal reality.”
Very recent data do show a leveling off in the decline in the U.S. fertility rate, so it’s possible we are beginning to see the pent-up demand for children manifesting itself in the real world. This would be viewed as a positive in many quarters, reflecting the sentiment that the U.S. needs a higher fertility rate -- evidenced in such headlines as “The U.S.’s Low Birth Rate Means the Nation Is Headed for a Demographic Crisis” and “The U.S. Needs More Immigrants and More Babies.”
These sentiments are not found just in the U.S., of course. China, which for years attempted to limit births, now is “desperate” for more babies, according to a New York Times report -- and is trying in many ways to encourage its young people to have children. Many European countries and Japan are also facing dire consequences from their low fertility rates. As the Financial Times recently reported, “Aging Europe Tries to Boost Birth Rates.”
There are still arguments about the optimal goal for fertility rates here in the U.S., but the consensus seems to be that having more babies would be good. And, as we have seen, higher fertility would fit with underlying personal sentiments in the population.
Many explanations have been advanced as to why this isn’t happening, including the impact of greater female participation in the workforce, changes in technology, worries about the future of the world, worries about the economy, lack of day care, availability of new contraceptive methods and so on. I don’t think there is any one dominant explanation.
A Decrease in the Perceived Importance of Social Norms
We do know that the lower fertility rate is occurring at a time when we are measuring a decrease in the perceived importance of traditional norms relating to sexual reproduction and family structure. As I noted last year, “Americans' views that each of the following is morally acceptable has increased significantly over the past two decades: sex between an unmarried man and woman, having a baby outside of marriage, sex between teenagers, and gay or lesbian relations. And while just 23% of Americans say that polygamy is morally acceptable, that's up from 7% in 2003.”
Plus, other Gallup data show that Americans are less likely now than in the past to think one needs to be married to have a baby. As my colleague Jeff Jones noted in a 2020 review of Gallup data, “Fewer U.S. adults now than in past years believe it is ‘very important’ for couples who have children together to be married.” And there has been a significant decrease in the percentage of Americans who actually engage in traditional marriage.
The bottom line: There are fewer culturally normative constraints today on the circumstances of having children. This represents a shift to individual choice norms in our society, wherein Americans’ major decisions are less likely to be controlled by prevailing social norms than in the past, creating a more open environment for the exercise of personal preferences.
The impact of this shift in norms on fertility can certainly be debated. One might argue that these loosened normative constraints on the situations in which one should have children could or should lead to an actual increase in the fertility rate. In other words, without social norms prescribing a narrow set of circumstances in which having children is viewed as acceptable, the birth rate could soar. But that is not happening.
On the other hand, it is logically possible that the decline in the power of traditional norms dictating sexual relations and family structure is part of the reason why we are seeing the decrease in fertility. Giving people many choices can lead to indecision and a decrease in desired consumer behavior, reflecting what has been called the “paradox of choice,” or choice overload. As one reviewer put it, “unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis.” The decline in societally accepted normative constraints on reproductive behavior could be leaving Americans in “choice paralysis” -- too many options. That in turn could lead to a delay or ultimate failure to decide when it comes to having children. Sociologically, society may need the controls (or impetus) that come from traditional, societal norms and institutions, and their absence can lead to freedom on the one hand but a decrease in behaviors functional for society on the other.
Fertility and Marriage Are Critically Important for Society
I think all of this matters. First, as noted, the argument can certainly be advanced that a declining fertility rate has significant negative consequences for American society. Second, Gallup data and a great deal of other research show that married people have higher wellbeing than those who are not married, and research confirms the strong economic benefits to children of being raised in a two-parent home.
Interestingly, Americans still value marriage as a personal goal, similar to the persistent underlying desire to have children. As Jeff Jones summarized in his review, “Despite this slide in marital rates, the vast majority of U.S. adults who have not been married -- 81% -- say they would like to get married someday. This is essentially unchanged from 78% when the question was last asked, in 2013.” Also, recent Gallup data show that the importance of “your family” remains at the top of the list of eight aspects of life tested, unchanged in importance from 20 years ago.
Shifting Social Trends and Changes in Norms Are Difficult
What can be done? If so inclined, how would a society intervene and attempt to shift norms and behavior and increase fertility and marriage rates?
One response that quickly comes to mind is changes in government actions and policies. This is the path taken by many countries that are vitally concerned about declining fertility, including China’s abrupt shift from its older one child policy to current policies of paying for parental leave and paying for fertility treatments, among other things. In the U.S., suggested pro-natalist policies include more support for day care and direct child allowance payments. But it’s not clear how effective these would be. As one reviewer recently summarized, “The evidence on these pro-natalist policies leads us to conclude that incremental policy responses are unlikely to reverse trends in the U.S. fertility rate.”
That leaves what we can call the cultural pathway -- attempting to shift norms through, in essence, persuasion. Older readers may remember then-Vice President Dan Quayle’s 1992 attempt to counter prevailing norms when he criticized the producers of the television sitcom Murphy Brown for having the titular character decide to have a child as a single mother. (“It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”) Quayle was vilified, and there is no evidence his commentary influenced either childbearing or single parenting. Perhaps a different messenger with a different style would have been more effective.
The challenge: Social change reflects intractable developments across many aspects of the systems and structures of society that are very difficult to purposefully alter. These include technology, geographic migration, forms of mass communication, biology, international relations and conflicts, politics, changes in the ecosystem and environment, population changes, shifts in perceived inequality, and -- I think importantly -- the impact of individuals who achieve prominence, leadership and influence. Trying to intervene in any of these ongoing processes and alter their course in meaningful ways is, to say the least, not easy.
Plus, we are living in a time of examination and questioning of social norms and what are perceived as their negative consequences. Norms by definition establish expectations that some behaviors or patterns of behavior are better than others. This implies to some observers that those who don’t accede to norms are unjustly and inequitably marginalized. Others may view norms as arbitrary in their origin and thus unnecessary in today’s environment. This has apparently led to the public’s growing tendency to discount normative disapprobations on behaviors, and to view what was formally taboo as morally acceptable. This is particularly true as the function of religion as an undergirding and legitimating basis for social norms fades in importance.
Would a More Rational Appeal to Societal Benefits Work?
Given all of this, one approach to encouraging more births would be to counterargue that, at bottom, norms have rational, functional benefits for society. The public can be informed that traditional norms surrounding childbearing can be positive for society and beneficial for individuals -- given that marriage is significantly correlated with higher wellbeing, that most Americans want to be married, that data show that two-parent households are beneficial to children, and that having children benefits society and apparently fulfills personal desires. (Plus, as an aside, the data show that being religious and in a religious community is positively correlated with wellbeing and happiness.)
It can be made clear that societies must have norms to continue to operate. If all norms are viewed as arbitrary or illegitimately benefiting some groups at the expense of others, societies crumble. Societies, in short, need structure and systems -- including systems that establish the context for having children.
It’s not clear how this could be effectuated or if this type of appeal to rationality would work. Knowing things intellectually is not the same as acting on those things behaviorally, as history shows. Altering the course of social, cultural and political change is one of the major challenges of our age. But we have data supporting the positive outcomes of certain changes, and it would seem certainly worthwhile to attempt to act on them.
In the end, change may depend in part on the one factor I mentioned previously -- the appearance of the kind of leaders who can persuade by argument and example in a positive, functional way. Many years ago, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb, published in 1968, became a million-copy bestseller. Ehrlich became a popular guest on late-night talk shows, and the idea of “zero population growth” became introduced into the mainstream discussion. Perhaps a similar personality, building on the type of data reviewed here, could appear on the American cultural landscape and at the least force the discussion to come around again to the benefits to society and to individuals of finding ways of activating latent childbearing potential.