A Gallup poll released last month uncovered an interesting trend. As a whole, 41 percent of Americans believe three or more children per family is ideal, up from 38 percent in 2013 and 34 percent in 2011.
Exactly half say up to two children is best. Only 1 percent told pollsters zero children was ideal.
And if you’re thinking the results differ by age, you’re right, but maybe not in the way you imagined. Among those 18 to 34, what many term millennials, 45 percent said three or more children are ideal, compared with only 36 percent of those aged 35 to 54.
But the flip side of this, of course, is that today’s young people are not having children. In 2017, fertility in the U.S. dropped to less than 1.8 births per women, a record low.
Statistics can be scary things, of course, especially the more you lump things together. Drill deeper and it turns out the real increase here is in the percentage of people who think four of more children is best, which jumped from 7 percent in 2007 to 15 percent today.
Isolate those who believe exactly three children are best and you get 26 percent, a figure that has held fairly steady over the last decade.
In Utah, of course, the joke is that having four children is considered a decent starter family.
Actually, that’s not so funny any more. Utah’s fertility rate has fallen to 2.29 children per woman, which is barely above the replacement level of 2.1.
But jokes aside, the question of why today’s young people are not having children is a serious one with lasting, painful effects.
As the Gallup survey said, should the declining birthrate continue, “the economic implications for the U.S. would be enormous, and intersect with U.S. immigration policy, as the relatively young immigrant population could be vital to maintaining economic growth and keeping the Social Security system viable.”
Medicare hangs in the balance, too, as well as the health of the entire economy. If the U.S. no longer contains enough young people to support programs that help the large and aging baby boomer population, it also won’t have enough taxpayers to pay off the national debt, let alone stop it from growing even larger.
Eventually, the military would weaken, economic production would wane, business would close and supply chains would be disrupted. What has happened to Detroit — buildings sitting vacant and needing to be destroyed — would happen in much of the country.
The New York Times recently studied why young people aren’t having children. Among those who said they probably would have fewer children then they considered ideal, the reasons given probably aren’t surprising. No. 1 was the cost of childcare, followed by wishing they had more time to spend with the children they already had and worries about the economy or their ability to afford children.
I am tempted to say that economic worries seem odd for people living in the country with the sixth highest median per capita income in the world, except that all the rich nations ahead of us are dealing with low birthrates, as well.
Still, the irony is hard to miss. People in a wealthy nation fret over not being able to afford children while their refusal to have more children lays the foundation for permanent long-term economic decline.
Some people have other theories. Several studies have detected an increase in narcissism, or excessive vanity, among modern young people. San Diego State University professor Jean M. Twenge told the New York Times she blames the nation’s modern culture of self-esteem. Feelings of self-worth ought to come from success, not be considered a necessary attribute that leads to it.
Regardless of the real reasons, more attention ought to be paid to the long-term consequences of smaller families.
It’s encouraging that emerging generations still see the value of having large families. But they need to be reminded why it’s urgent for them to follow through on those desires, regardless of their worries.