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Declining Birth Rates, A Conversation with Layton Field, Ph.D.

Paul Miller

Field children

There have been several headlines recently about the declining birthrate in the U.S. and around the world. What are the causes? What are the social effects? What are the related cultural, economic, and ethical issues we have to consider?

Layton Field, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Mount's department of sociology, criminal justice and human services, specializes in population research and examines the intricate relationship between the processes of fertility, mortality, migration and society as a whole. Field has published works in leading journals on population. Field shared his thoughts on the important issue of declining fertility.

Chart showing how the type of work impacted birth ratesIn the twentieth century, the U.S. has shifted from a rural to a more urban-industrial economy. According to the demographic transition theory, in the pre-industrial stage, birth rates and death rates were high. Rural families had more babies because they expected that many of their children would not survive. Parents also viewed having children as a support for the family’s agricultural work. With increasing food supplies and medical advances, infant mortality rates declined, and there was a population boom.

U.S. society then shifted to a more industrial economy. There was increased access to birth control. More women were entering the workforce. Children were increasingly viewed as consumers in the family economy rather than potential contributors. These factors contributed to a decrease in U.S. births, or the total fertility rate (TFR), from about 3,654-lifetime births per 1,000 women (TFR of 3.65) in 1960 to around 1,765 (1.76) births in 2017.

The fertility replacement rate needs to be 2.1 to sustain current population numbers. Field said, “Many demographers believed that the fertility rate would level off; that women were not having fewer babies, they were just waiting later in life to have them.” Field referred to this theory as the tempo effect. “The evidence now shows that this leveling off did not occur, but that the TFR continued to decline. Women were not only waiting but having fewer babies—a theory known as quantum fertility decrease,” said Field.

Graph of global population
Graph showing the global population decline from 1960 through 2010.

One demographic result in the U.S. is that the population is aging. Field commented, “There is a shifting population pyramid; more of the U.S. population is in the advanced ages of life. Because people are living longer, this also adds to the disparity between births and the aging population.” Field said that some experts estimate Social Security will run out by 2040. This will require difficult policy and personal decisions. People will need to consider working longer or paying more taxes to support Social Security. Other ethical considerations will also certainly become more relevant, such as children’s responsibilities toward their aging parents and the value and dignity of the elderly.

Some have argued that the declining fertility rate is a positive trend. Borrowing from the Malthusian theory of population and limited resources, they say that a decreasing population will be better, not only because of a decreasing demand for labor due to automation, but also because of the stress on the environment that increasing populations cause. They posit the benefits of less overcrowding and a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. Field believes that those who hold to this view have a somewhat limited estimation of human innovation and potential.

“Time and again, theorists have predicted that the earth would not be able to sustain the numbers of human population growth,” said Field. “But humans have demonstrated an ongoing ability to innovate and to effectively distribute resources.” With the concern about decreasing labor demands and automation, Field said, “It is not so much a lessening in demand for labor, but rather changes in the types of labor. In countries like Japan, they are turning to robots and automation because of labor shortages. We are going to have to consider new ways to prepare the next generation of workers for these changes.”

Depending on how different countries view the issue of population growth and decline, they have enacted pro-natalist policies (policies that promote high birth rates) or anti-natalist policies (policies that discourage births). In response to the decline in total fertility rates, countries that have promoted pro-natalist policies have met with little success. “What may need to happen is a combination of policy, social and cultural changes that support more births. In many countries, the steady decline in birth rates have become a cultural norm. This then perpetuates ongoing low birth rates—a phenomenon known as the low-fertility trap hypothesis,” said Field.

Field is grateful he has the opportunity to do his research and work at the Mount. Here he can discuss and consider all the variables affecting fertility rates, including the prevalence of contraception, which might be ignored at other institutions. Field reflected, “Sociology is about recognizing structures in society and how these structures affect our daily lives. It’s important that sociologists and sociology students be aware of these larger forces at work, to take an informed approach.” In his Population and Society class, Field challenges his students to consider the reciprocal effect demographics and policy have on each other. Mount students learn to reflect on and apply their research and analysis in the context of our core curriculum. As they consider issues such as the declining fertility rate, they are then able to make connections to their own lives and to the world around them.

Paul Miller