We have been hearing it for the better part of a decade now: The national birth rate is falling and it’s a total doomsday scenario.
The Centers for Disease Control released its National Vital Statistics report in early January and, for the third year in a row, the general fertility rate (GFR) has dropped again. According to the report, the GFR has decreased 3 percent since 2016, hitting a 30-year record low.
It’s the millennials. [Insert blame here].
Our culture and our environment are nothing like our baby boomer parents’ either. We came of age in an often unstable gig economy (I graduated from college in 2008, at the height of the economic crisis), much of our mate finding is now the product of online matchmaking; and millennials have some of the most staggering levels of student loan debt. And, to make matters even more concerning, infant and mother mortality rates have been consistently on the rise, making the United States among one of the most dangerous places to give birth in the industrialized world (not to mention one of the most expensive).
So yes, there is plenty of evidence to support why millennials are not having as many children, but the larger question is not so much how do we change this, but rather: Is the diminishing birthrate really such a bad thing?
Maybe We Really Are Worried About Becoming Our Parents
First, let’s address the unease about our aging workforce, which has been proposed as one of the primary apprehensions of the falling birthrate. For those who make this argument, I would point to this Nov. 2018 article — one of many released since the early aughts — which suggests we should also be concerned about how automated our workforce is becoming.
In truth, automation is most a threat to low-skilled, blue collar jobs, which are more compulsory in an economy that fails to incentivize education and technical job skills, instead spurring children of low wage earners to follow in their parents footsteps.
But if colleges and technical schools were made more affordable, forthcoming generations might actually have the opportunity to learn skills and trades their parents were never afforded the opportunity to, consequently paving the way for manual labor jobs to become more mechanized.
It’s a crazy notion, I know. But when did we stop wanting our children to have better lives than our own?
I have a distinct memory of discussing my plans for college with my father, who received not one, but two Bachelors degrees. “All I want,” I recall my father saying, “is for my children to be smarter and more educated than I am.”
He did not live long enough to see this wish come true, though it did eventually come to fruition. (In 2016, I received my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a whopping five-digit student loan bill to pair with it.)
While I’m all for a more socialized form of education, that’s not my primary argument here. Rather, I would suggest this downward trend of childrearing is actually a very good thing, not just domestically, but from a global perspective as well.
We’re Not Just Poor and Childless; We Also Love The Planet
As a millennial, a childfree woman, and an environmental steward, I have profound concerns about the future of the world as we know it — especially given the current trajectory of the U.S., where we have done little to limit carbon dioxide emissions, despite daunting predictions from the environmental community about our warming world and the growing occurrence of climate-related disasters.
And I’m not alone. According to a July 2018 New York Times survey of nearly 2,000 men and women ages 20 to 45, 33 percent of respondents cited worries about climate change as a reason for having fewer children than they had expected to or considered ideal.
In recent years, catastrophic weather events have increased dramatically, and with CO2 emissions still on the rise, world food shortages and shrinking coastlines are becoming less prediction and more reality. According to analyses conducted annually by the World Bank, in order to reach climate targets and avoid severe global warming, we must reduce carbon emissions in the United States by two tonnes per person, per year by 2050 — a considerable reduction, given that the average U.S. citizen produces just more than 16 tonnes of carbon per person, per year (as of 2019, that number is estimated to have reached roughly 20 tonnes per person, per year).
Some of the most substantial ways to reduce emissions, according to a 2017 Environmental Research Letters study, include eating a plant-based diet, reducing air travel, living car-free, and — perhaps the most significant impact by a long mile — having one fewer child.
It’s also worth noting that most major analyses for reducing emissions (and remaining under the 2°C point-of-no-return benchmark that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has established) assumes the use of unproven technologies to achieve emissions cuts. Thus, in order to truly make an impact, it’s ever more important we consider real life applications, which we can begin making now.
Yes, this means exactly what you think it does: Millennials might actually be doing something good for the sustainability of our future.
Just ask Edward S. Rubenstein, president of ESR Research and an experienced researcher, financial analyst, and economics journalist. While most economists agree that a declining birthrate spells trouble for the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Rubin concludes that it might actually be very good for our environment, specifically as it relates to scarcity of resources and the earth’s natural ability to replenish these resources.
Go ahead, let’s all take a collective sigh of relief.
Rubenstein concludes that millennials “seem determined to break away from the spendthrift, materialistic ways of their baby boomer parents,” the longterm benefits of which could mean “a lower U.S. population, a lower per capita carbon footprint, [and] the proliferation of renewable energy sources.”
In other words, our very decision not to have children at quite the same rate as previous generations, might be the very thing that ensures the children we do choose to have actually inhabit a livable world. Wild, I know.
And so I say (tongue firmly inserted into cheek): Watch out, baby boomers. We may just be your only hope. 🤣