News story suggests 40% is “Almost Half”

A Bloomberg story looks at the rise in birth in the United States outside of marriage and has this headline:

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

And then the story quickly gets to the data:

Forty percent of all births in the U.S. now occur outside of wedlock, up from 10 percent in 1970, according to an annual report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest international provider of sexual and reproductive health services. That number is even higher in the European Union.

Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift

There is no doubt that this is significant trend over nearly 50 years. One expert sums this up toward the end of the story:

The traditional progression of Western life “has been reversed,” said John Santelli, a professor in population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Cohabiting partners are having children before getting married. That’s a long-term trend across developing nations.”

Yet, the headline oversells the change. A move from 10% of births to 40% of births is large. But, is 40% nearly 50%? When I hear almost half, I would expect a number between 45% and 49.99%. Claiming 40% is nearly half is going a little too far.

I think the reading public would better served by either using the 40% figure or saying “Two-Fifths.” Or, perhaps the headline might speak to the 30% jump in nearly 50 years.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue. The rest of the story does a nice job presenting the data and discussing what is behind the change. But, this is a headline dominated age – you have to catch those eyes scrolling quickly on their phones – and this headline goes a bit too far.

Multiple measures and small trends: American birthrates down, births per woman up

A new Pew report explains this statistical oddity: the annual birthrate in the US is down but women are having more children.

How can fertility be down even as the number of women who are having children is going up? There are complex statistical reasons for this, but the main cause of this confusing discrepancy is the age at which women are having children. Women are having children later in life — the median age for having a first baby is 26 now, up from 23 in 1994 — and this delay causes annual birth rates to go down, even as the cumulative number of babies per woman has risen…

 

Another factor, Livingston said, is the drop in teen birth rates, with black women seeing the biggest drop in that category.

See the Pew report here. An additional part of the explanation is that there are multiple measures at play here. A Pew report from earlier in 2018 explains:

But aside from this debate, the question remains: Is this really a record low? The short answer is: It’s complicated.

That’s because there are different ways to measure fertility. Three of the most commonly used indicators of fertility are the general fertility rate (GFR); completed fertility; and the total fertility rate (TFR). All three reflect fertility behavior in slightly different ways – respectively, in terms of the annual rate at which women are presently having kids; the number of kids they ultimately have; or the hypothetical number they would likely have based on present fertility patterns.

None of these indicators is “right” or “wrong,” but each tells a different story about when fertility bottomed out.

Measurement matters and the different measures can fit different social and political views.

I wonder if part of the issue is also that there is a clear drop in births from the earlier era – roughly 1950 to 1970 which we often associate with Baby Boomers – but the last 3+ decades have been relatively flat. This plateau of recent decades means researchers and commentators may be more prone to jump on small changes in the data. Many people would love to predict the next big significant rise or fall in numbers but a significant change may not be there, particularly when looking at multiple measures.

Hard to counter China’s aging, even with change in one-child policy

The change in China’s one-child policy may not have much effect on its demographics:

“The population in China is going to continue to age,” said Kristin Bietsch, a research associate at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. “Even though they’re hoping to increase their fertility, they’re still going to have a substantial population aging — and this is going to happen even with the increase in fertility.”…Adrian Raftery, a professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, agreed: “The (United Nations) has already been projecting a small and slow increase in China’s fertility rates over the coming decades, and this news makes this even more likely to happen,” he said. “The increase is not likely to be large, though.”…

Like much of Europe, China’s population is aging rapidly — India’s population, now at 1.3 billion, is expected to surpass China’s within seven years, according to the United Nations…

But many demographers argue the birthrate would have fallen anyway as China’s economy developed and education levels rose. They foresee a looming crisis because the policy reduced the young labor pool that must support the large baby boom generation as it retires.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. See more about demographic transition here: as countries develop and have more wealth, residents have fewer children. Even as the one-child policy disappears, there may not be a rush to have two children.
  2. Governments have the ability to set policies such as these but one problem with influential policies is that they also need good timing. If the goal was to reduce the proportion of older residents, this change came late and it will now take more time to counteract the unintended consequences of the initial policy.
  3. I haven’t seen much about the real reasons China reversed this policy. Presumably, it has to do with aging – a modern society needs a broad base of young workers both for economic growth as well as to pay into the system to take care of older residents. Yet, this article brings up the population of India – might the shift also have to do with the population growth of India? Are there other reasons as well?

Percent of American teenagers at its lowest point ever

The development of the age category teenager has been influential in American society but recent data suggests the percent of Americans who are teenagers has never been lower:

Here’s the total number of 13-to-19 year olds over the past 50 years. (The most recent data from the Census Bureau is an estimate from 2013.)

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in different social spheres including:

1. Education. Does this mean the closing of schools/colleges and fewer jobs for educators?

2. Marketing. Teenagers wanted to utilize their disposable income and brands wanted to hook them as consumers for life. But, with fewer teenagers, brands will really have to make sure they reach enough teenagers.

3. Suburbs. These areas have been devoted to children for decades while also not knowing what to do with teenagers who often wanted to escape the relatively dull, often private settings.

4. All sorts of occupations. Are there certain industries that won’t attract enough teenagers?

I could go on. But, I would also note that there may be even fewer teenagers if it hadn’t been for higher birth rates among the tens of millions of immigrants who have made their way to the United States in recent decades.

More demographic issues, this time in Southern Europe

Amidst news that Japan experienced a record population drop in 2010, today, the New York Times reports on Southern Europe where there is a lack of jobs for the young even as a growing elderly population requires support and how this has led to a “pervasive malaise among young people”:

Indeed, experts warn of a looming demographic disaster in Southern Europe, which has among the lowest birth rates in the Western world. With pensioners living longer and young people entering the work force later — and paying less in taxes because their salaries are so low — it is only a matter of time before state coffers run dry.

“What we have is a Ponzi scheme,” said Laurence J. Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston University and an expert in fiscal policy.

He said that pay-as-you-go social security and health care were a looming fiscal disaster in Southern Europe and beyond. “If these fertility rates continue through time, you won’t have Italians, Spanish, Greeks, Portuguese or Russians,” he said. “I imagine the Chinese will just move into Southern Europe.”

The problem goes far beyond youth unemployment, which is at 40 percent in Spain and 28 percent in Italy. It is also about underemployment. Today, young people in Southern Europe are effectively exploited by the very mechanisms created a decade ago to help make the labor market more flexible, like temporary contracts.

Whoever is going to tackle these issues is going to have be very brave or thick-skinned.

While the consequences of long-term low birth rates are becoming more clear, why is there not more discussion about boosting these birth rates? How exactly did the birth rate drop so much? How did it become so desirable for nations and individuals to have so few children? Could governments provide incentives to families so that they would have more children?

It will also be interesting to track how this “malaise” works its way through the younger generation. Could this be the first generation in a while that has a tougher life than their parents in terms of having to work longer and harder just to keep society afloat? What are the social consequences of this malaise: less productivity, less interest in civil society, general unrest?

Record population drop in Japan

Numerous industrialized nations are facing a demographic challenge: an aging population coupled with a low birth rate. Japan is one of these countries and experienced a record population drop in 2010:

Japan faces a looming demographic squeeze. Baby boomers are moving toward retirement, with fewer workers and taxpayers to replace them. The Japanese boast among the highest life expectancies in the world but have extremely low birth rates.

Japan logged 1.19 million deaths in 2010 — the biggest number since 1947 when the health ministry’s annual records began. The number of births was nearly flat at 1.07 million.

As a result, Japan contracted by 123,000 people, which was the most ever and represents the fourth consecutive year of population decline. The top causes of death were cancer, heart disease and stroke, the ministry said.

Japanese aged 65 and older make up about a quarter of Japan’s current population. The government projects that by 2050, that figure will climb to 40 percent.

This will have some enormous social consequences in the coming decades: an growing older population will require more and more government services that will be paid for by a shrinking base of younger workers.

One important piece of the story seems to be missing in this article: immigration. Japan has historically been relatively closed to immigration where other industrialized nations have various rates of immigration. In the United States, population growth has been fueled by higher birth rates than some other industrialized nations plus high levels of immigration. As countries continue to think about this demographic shift, could more nations see immigration as a solution to looming budget issues related to government programs for the elderly?

How birth rates can be influenced by economics

Birth rates have been relatively stable over the last 20 years in the United States – while there is some variation, it is nothing like comparing the birth rate today to the birth rate in early 1900s. Additionally, the United States has a relatively high birth rate compared to many industrialized nations.

However, new data suggests the birth rate may have been affected by the economic crisis:

The birth rate, which takes into account changes in the population, fell to 13.5 births for every 1,000 people last year. That’s down from 14.3 in 2007 and way down from 30 in 1909, when it was common for people to have big families…

The situation is a striking turnabout from 2007, when more babies were born in the United States than any other year in the nation’s history. The recession began that fall, dragging stocks, jobs and births down…

Another possible factor in the drop: a decline in immigration to the United States.

On one hand, deciding to have a child is a very personal decision – the United States has no official guidelines about this and people are free to do what they wish. On the other hand, there are a whole host of social factors that influence this decision including economics, cultural background, and social pressure to conform to existing and changing norms.

A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune highlighted the issue in Illinois.