Tag Archives: projections

The continuation of babies

There is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size.

Anna Louie Sussman wrote an essay in the New York Times, given the unfortunate title “The End of Babies” (about which more below). I like a lot of it, and I have substantial disagreements with the framing.

It’s about falling fertility and capitalism. This is a great summary, though I would replace “not necessarily a bad thing” with “usually a very good thing”:

Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.

At its worst, though, it reflects a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy. In these instances, having fewer children is less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavory circumstances.

Sussman sees the “bigger picture” as this:

Our current version of global capitalism … has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more. These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.

This paragraph uses a sort of 1% versus 99% framing with is exaggerated but not unreasonable. This, however, is just exaggerated:

It seems clear that what we have come to think of as “late capitalism” — that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities — has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive.

Lost in this, by now, is all the good parts about falling fertility mentioned previously. Remember, contraceptives are good, and most people use them deliberately to help control their lives, and they do it because social and environmental conditions have made it possible to have more control over one’s life than ever before, while offering unprecedented opportunities for women beyond child-rearing.

In short, I agree with Sussman’s description of how some people in rich societies would like to have more children than they do, I just don’t think it’s anything like a universal or even general experience in our era. And there is a puzzle confounding the premise: within rich countries, or at least the USA, privileged people, who presumably have more control over their lives and destinies, still have fewer children than those who are more powerless. I once wrote:

There is an argument that Americans are having fewer children than they want to because of our stone age work-family policies, especially poor family leave support and the high costs of good childcare. I’m sure that’s happening to some degree, but it’s still the case that more privileged people, who should be able to overcome those things more readily — people with college degrees and Whites — have lower fertility rates than people who are getting squeezed more.

Like a lot of work in this area, Sussman’s assessment that people want more children — which generates the image of the “reproductive malaise [that] has settled over,” in this case, Denmark — is based on surveys showing people’s “ideal” family size is larger than the average number of children actually born per family. But the interpretation of this gap is not so straightforward. Maybe people think three is the ideal number of children, but they also think a PhD is the ideal amount of education, and so they compromise, with some having one kid and a PhD, and some having three kids and a no college degree. This is an empirical question. What’s historically unprecedented and still so new that we don’t know what to make of it socially is the fact that this is a choice at all for so many people.

As I previously reported, the proportion of US women whose “ideal” number of children is higher than they number they had by age 40 has risen, from less than 15% among women born in the 1930s to almost a quarter for women born in the early 1970s. If you break that trend down by BA/no-BA education level, you can see that women with BA degrees are pushing it upward:

ideal fam size gss ba

So maybe college graduate women are having fewer than their ideal number of children like I’m earning less than the ideal amount of money — I think I could be making more money, but then I wouldn’t be able to sit around in my pajamas blogging with my dog, so I compromise. Of course, like some of the people in Sussman’s piece, a lot of people are justifiably unhappy about this, feeling they can’t compromise between forces pulling them in opposite directions. And so the result is dissatisfaction, maybe even malaise. I just don’t think we know how many people feel that way, or even whether the feeling is much more prevalent than it used to be.

Denmark

Sussman uses Denmark as one case study. This is her summary:

If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.

But where is the evidence for this malaise? Denmark’s fertility rate has been low and relatively stable, while it is the USA’s that has plummeted since 2007, which is why the countries are now at the same level. The malaise that is settling is here — Denmark’s has already settled.

To elaborate on Denmark: There was a rapid drop in fertility from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, followed by a rebound, and then relative stability for about 25 years. During that time, as the population continued to grow slowly, women were reaching age 40 with between 1.8 and 1.9 children on average. Rather than slipping into a chasm, it looks more like the affluent people of Denmark have settled into a moderately low-fertility regime.

denmark.xlsx

“Replacement” fertility, of about 2.1 births per woman, doesn’t mean a society is healthy or happy. Maybe late capitalism with a decent welfare state is not “hostile to reproduction,” maybe it just doesn’t quite get to 2.1.

How bad is that? Like the USA (see my last projections), Denmark will have population decline if they keep on this path, discounting immigration. Because they have been at low fertility for a while, the country is close to seeing actual decline based on birth rates alone. Here is what would happen over the next hundred years if current trends persist and there are no immigrants: The population would eventually contract 31%.

denmark.xlsx

A 31% population drop a century from now would make for a pretty different Denmark (as will another few feet of sea-level rise). But there is time to get there — the drop would only be 6% in the next three decades. And of course if they don’t want this, they could easily cushion the fall with immigration. In any event, there is nothing here that suggests the “end of babies” or the abandonment of reproduction — families would continue having an average of 1.8 children each, as they have for the last several decades.

A population below replacement fertility might seem diseased, but it might also just be the aggregation of a lot of people exercising their newfound freedoms in newly discovered ways, including having fewer or no children. I agree with Sussman when she writes:

The problem, to be clear, is not really one of “population” …. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born on this planet every day; people all over the world have shown they are willing to migrate to wealthier countries for jobs. Rather, the problem is the quiet human tragedies, born of preventable constraints — an employer’s indifference, a belated realization, a poisoned body — that make the wanted child impossible.

To the extent those tragedies occur, we should prevent or ameliorate them. And to the extent they are concentrated among people or groups who already experience marginalization, isolation, or exploitation, it’s a social problem that’s part of our burgeoning inequality suite. Healthcare, housing, education, and family leave all come to mind as helpful, even if they can’t solve the existential crisis of late capitalism. But two cautions. First, I’m not convinced such tragedies are more common than they used to be, just because people are having fewer children than they used to. Remember, we also have fewer people trapped into having large families they don’t want (forced-birther policies notwithstanding).

And second, crucially, even if we address these issues of self-determination, there is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size. We may eventually have to learn to live with fewer people, locally and globally, even if we’re all happy with the number of children we have.

What comes around

In the meantime, I think it’s confusing and ultimately unhelpful to confound what are essentially orthogonal issues. We should care about the problems Sussman raises regardless of population trends.

And that brings me to an aside on New York Times coverage. It was just 11 years ago, in 2008, that a different New York Times story about the existential threat of falling fertility, this one in the Magazine and titled “No Babies?”, singled out Scandinavian countries — with total fertility rates of 1.8 — as positive examples, bucking the trend toward “lowest-low” fertility demonstrated by Southern European countries, due to their “vigorous social-welfare systems.” That’s the same social welfare system, and the same total fertility rate, that Sussman characterizes as a “reproductive malaise” in Denmark today.

And there are illustrations of children playing alone in both cases. Because “the end of babies” and a world with “no babies” is best illustrated with a picture of the last child on earth alone in a playground. Great illustrations — just not of our societies.

nytchildrenalone

That said…

You can’t really pin sudden fertility swings on things like “late capitalism,” which are decades in the making. It was just February of 2009 that I was writing one of my first blog posts, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?” as U.S. total fertility rose to 2.1 for the first time since 1971. I think it was late capitalism, too, but the U.S. TFR was 13% higher than Denmark’s (they are now the same), and everyone was talking about American mothers “opting out” of the labor force to stay home with their four children. On the other hand is socialist Finland — a country with a lot of what I want from social policy, including low inequality and poverty, and lots of family leave — which has seen a fertility decline since 2010 that could reasonably be called a crash. The government estimates the TFR in 2019 is 1.32-1.34, down from 1.86 a decade ago!

Here are the trends in select countries:

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

Does this mean the people in Finland are suddenly much less happy  relative to those in Denmark, which has seen a recent uptick in fertility rates? I have no idea. I can make population projections if you tell me the fertility rate, but I can’t tell you what the fertility rate will be in the future (and neither can you). A tiny bit humbling, honestly.

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AEI panel on ‘demographic decline’

I was on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute, titled, “Demographic decline: National crisis or moral panic?” The event featured Lyman Stone, who argued that “demographic decline” in the U.S. is a national crisis, and my reply. Nick Eberstadt from AEI also offered comments. The moderator was AEI’s Karlyn Bowman.

The video of the event (which was on CSPAN) is below.

In my presentation I used the projections and other material I described earlier, here (where you can also link to the data and package I used). The gist of my talk is that with immigration we don’t have an issue of declining population.

I also emphasized the political implications of catastrophic “demographic decline” talk, which are based on a combination of doomsday demographics and increasing race/ethnic diversity. For that part I included these two figures, which I worked up for the next edition of my textbook. The first shows Census Bureau projections of the U.S. population by race/ethnicity, which is the basis for the White supremacist panic. (Important caveat about this figure is the assumptions about the ethnic identity of the descendants of today’s Latinos, see Richard Alba.)

re-forecast

For the politics of immigration, which is a giant topic, I presented this very simple figure showing the rise of Latin American and Asian immigration since 1965.

imre-history

Here is the video on YouTube. If you prefer the CSPAN production style (or don’t want to give AEI click), theirs is here. My talk is 15 minutes, starting at 13:40.

Happy to hear your responses, including on the dicey issue of whether to participate in an AEI event.

(In the YouTube comments, the first person calls me a “Jewish supremacist” and demands to know my view on Israeli immigration policy, and another says, “This guy is through and through an open borders globalist.” So that’s the dialogue, too.)

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Fertility rate implications explained

(Sorry for the over-promising title; thanks for the clicks.)

First where we are, then projections, with figures.

For background: Caroline Hartnett has an essay putting the numbers in context. Leslie Root has a recent piece explaining how these numbers are deployed by white supremacists (key point: over-hyping the downside of lower fertility rates has terrible real-world implications).

Description

The National Center for Health Statistics released the 2018 fertility numbers yesterday, showing another drop in birth rates, and the lowest fertility since the Baby Boom. We are continuing a historical process of moving births from younger to older ages, which shows up as fewer births in the transition years. I illustrate this each year by updating this figure, showing the relative change in birth rates by age since 1989:

change in birthrates by age 1989-2016.xlsx

Historically, postponement was associated with reduction in lifetime births — which is what really matters for population trends. When people were having lots of children, any delay reduced the total number. With birth rates around two per woman, however, there is a lot more room for postponement — a lot of time to get to two. (At the societal level, both reduction and postponement are generally good for gender equality, if women have good health and healthcare.)

This means that drops in what we demographers call “period” fertility (births right now) are not the same as drops in “completed” fertility (births in a lifetime), or falling population in the long run. The period fertility measure most often used, the unfortunately named total fertility rate (TFR), is often misunderstood as an indicator of how many children women will have. It is actually how many births they are having right now, expressed in lifetime terms (I describe it in this video, with instructions).

Lawrence Wu and Nicholas Mark recently showed that despite several periods of below “replacement” fertility (in terms of TFR), no U.S. cohort of women has yet finished their childbearing years with fewer than two births per woman. Here is the completed fertility of U.S. women, by year of birth, as recorded by the General Social Survey. By this account, women born in the early 1970s (now in their late-forties by 2018) have had an average of 2.3 children.

Stata graph

Whether our streak of over-two completed fertility persists depends on what happens in in the next few years (and of course on immigration, which I’ll get to).

Last year at this time I summed up the fertility situation and concluded, “sell stock now,” because birth rates fell for women at all ages except over 40. That kind of postponement, I figured, based on history, reflected economic uncertainty and thus was an ill omen for the economy. The S&P 500 is up 5% since then, which isn’t bad as far as my advice goes. And I’m still bearish based on these birth trends (I bet I’ll be right before fertility increases).

Projection

It is very hard to have an intuitive sense of what demographic indicators mean, especially for the future. So I’ve made some projections to show the math of the situation, to get the various factors into scale. My point is to show what the current (or future) birth rates imply about future growth, and the relative role of immigration.

These projections run from 2016 to 2100. I made them using the Census Bureau’s Demographic Analysis and Population Projection System software, which lets me set the birth, death, and migration rates.* I started with the 2016 population because that’s the most recent set of life tables NCHS has released for mortality. Starting in 2018 I apply the current age-specific birth rates.

First, the most basic projection. This is what would happen if birth rates stayed the same as those in 2018 and we completely cut off all immigration (Projection A), or if we had net migration running at the current level of just under +1 million each year, using Census estimates for age and sex of the migrants (Projection B).

projections.xlsx

From the 2016 population of 323 million, if the birth rates by age in 2018 were locked in, the population would peak at 329 million in 2029 and then start to decline, reaching 235 million by 2100. However, if we maintain current immigration levels (by age and sex), the population would keep growing till 2066 before tapering only slightly. (Note this assumes, unrealistically, that the immigrants and their children have the same birth rates as the current population; they have generally been higher.) This the most important bottom line: there is no reason for the U.S. to experience population decline, with even moderate levels of immigration, and assuming no rebound in fertility rates. Immigration rates do not have to increase to maintain the current population indefinitely.

Note I also added the percentage of the population over age 65 on the figure. That number is about 16% now. If we cut off immigration and maintain current birth rates, it would rise to 25% by the end of the century, increasing the need for investment in old age stuff. If we allow current migration to continue, that growth is less and it only reaches 23%. This is going up no matter what.

To show the scale of other changes that we might expect — again, not predictions — I added a few other factors. Here are the same projections, but adding a transition to higher life expectancies by 2080 (using Japan’s current life tables; we can dream). In these scenarios, population decline is later and slower (and not just at older ages, since Japan also has lower child mortality).

projections.xlsx

Under these scenarios, with rising life expectancies, the old population rises more, to between 27% and 29%. Generally experts assume life expectancies will rise more than this, but that’s the assumed direction (now, unbelievably, in doubt).

Finally, I’ve been assuming birth rates will not fall further. If what we’re seeing now is fertility postponement, we wouldn’t expect much more decline. But what if fertility keeps falling? Here is what you get with the assumptions in Projection D, plus total fertility rates falling to 1.6, either by 2030 or 2050. As you can see, in the 1.6 to 1.8 range, the effects on population size aren’t great in this time scale.

projections.xlsx

Conclusion: We are on track for slowing population growth, followed by a plateau or modest decline, with population aging, by the end of the century, and immigration is a bigger question than fertility rates, for both population growth and aging.

Perspective

In a global context where more people want to come here than want to leave (to date), worrying about low birth rates tends to lend itself to myopic, religious, or racist perspectives which I don’t share. I don’t think American culture is superior, whites are in danger of extinction, or God wants us to have more children.

I do not agree with Dowell Myers, who was quoted yesterday as saying, “The birthrate is a barometer of despair.” That even as some people are having fewer children than they want, or delaying childbearing when they would rather not. In the most recent cohort to finish childbearing, 23% gave an “ideal number of children for a family to have” that was greater than the number they had, and that number has trended up, as you can see here:

Stata graph

Is this rising despair? As individuals, people don’t need to have children any more. Ideally, they have as many as they want, when they want, but they are expensive and time consuming and it’s not surprising people end up with fewer than they think “ideal.” Not to be crass about it, but I assume the average person also has fewer boats than they consider ideal.

And how do we know what is the right level of fertility for the population? As Marina Adshade said on Twitter, “Did women actually have a desire for more children in the past? Or did they simply lack the bargaining power and means to avoid births?”

However, to the extent that low birth rates reflect frustrated dreams, or fear and uncertainty, or insufficient support for families with children, of course those are real problems. But then let’s name those problems and address them, rather than trying to change fertility rates or grow the population, which is a policy agenda with a very bad track record.


* I put the DAPPS file package I created on the Open Science Framework, here. If you install DAPPS you can open this and look at the projections output, with graphs and tables and population pyramids.

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Demographic Intelligence, low bar edition

U.S. marriage rates are falling generally, so that’s the real news. And it’s important. In fact, one classic projection has the rate hitting zero at 2042. But the news shenanigans are in the prediction business.

I first wrote here about Demographic Intelligence, a profit-making venture founded by Brad Wilcox (full file). They prey on companies’ ignorance about demography and the news media’s desire to stay ahead of the story, making ridiculous claims like “99% accuracy” in their forecasts. Here’s an update.

In a Washington Post Wonkblog entry meaninglessly titled, “Why parents should stop hoping their kids will get married,” we read:

“Millennials are such a big generation, we’re going to have more people of prime marriage age in the next five years than we’ve had at any time in U.S. history. For that alone, we’d expect an uptick in marriage rates,” said Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence.

Setting aside the knowledge-sucking obsession with generational marketing terms, let’s just hold the president of a company with “demographic” in the title to a slightly-higher-than-complete-nonsense standard of demographic intelligence. The median age at marriage is now 28 (combining men and women). At that age there were 4.3 million people in 2013. That is actually the highest number of people ever at the median age at marriage. For example, in 1900, when the median age at marriage was 24, there were only 1.5 million people that age. Wow!

However, intelligent demographer Sturgeon said “for that alone, we’d expect an uptick in marriage rates.” And marriage rates are based on population size. that 4.3 million people at age 28 in 2013 was only 1.35% of the population, while the 1.5 million people at age 24 in 1900 was 1.96% of the population. In fact, the pattern is the opposite of what Sturgeon said: we have never had fewer people — proportionately — in the prime marrying age. Double wow!

Here is the population distribution by age from 1900 to 2013, from the IPUMS.org online table maker (try it, it’s easy!). The color coding helpfully shows where the number is above average (red) versus below average (blue). I’ve highlighted the five-year age interval that contains the median marriage age for each decade:

Microsoft PowerPoint - uspop-age-dist-marriage-age.pptx

That the marriage rate is falling — Sturgeon’s expert prediction (see below) is that it will reach an all-time low in 2016 (as it has in 16 of the last 33 years) — is in large part driven by this age composition trend.

How accurate is that forecast?

Demographic Intelligence boasts “99% accuracy” in its wedding forecasts. And these forecasts, they say, are very useful:

This unique forecast is especially valuable as the federal marriage statistics are usually released 12 to 24 months after the date to which they apply, making official data of limited usefulness to the wedding industry. Our forecast is available 24 months before weddings happen, thereby offering a tremendous value to companies that focus on weddings and ancillary businesses.

Now, I’m all in favor of wasting the wedding industry’s money, but I don’t like deceiving the public. So I have to tell you: for every year from 2001 to 2012, if you had simply used last year’s marriage rate to predict this year’s, you would have averaged 98.3% accuracy. That is the deer-in-headlights method of forecasting. In fact, the deer-in-the-headlights forecast for 2012 — that is, assuming no change from 2011 — yields an astonishing accuracy of 99.87% (see below). Not bad! I’ll sell that to you for just 98% of what Demographic Intelligence is charging (except you’re already paying for my services, so you’re welcome).

Of course, demographers like projections, and I’m no exception. It is frustrating that official marriage statistics lag “real time” so much more than other important statistics, such as the unemployment rate or the number of named storms per season. That’s why in 2013 I announced a marriage forecast contest to predict the 2012 marriage rate, and provided some trends in key variables for you to experiment with (in a spreadsheet here): Google searches for wedding invitations, bridal showers, and wedding gifts; the unemployment rate, the Index of Consumer Sentiment, and the number of women ages 20-39:

There was so little interest in my contest (go figure), that I never got around to updating the results. So here goes. We now know from official statistics that there were 2,131,000 marriages in 2012, which, for a population of 313,914,040, yields a marriage-per-1000 rate of 6.788, down from 6.797 in 2011. Using different combinations of these variables, I generated projections using linear regressions. As I noted, the no-change performed very well, at 99.87% accuracy. But the winning model was actually the one that used the Google search trends only, which predicted 2,133,647 weddings, an astonishing 99.88% accurate. If Google is not using their data to get filthy rich — oh wait.

Anyway, in this exercise I’m just predicting the next year in the series — it gets a little trickier if you want to go four years out. And demographic projections are a serious science. But this prediction business is just wasting money and confusing people.

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