Wheatley Institute: 3 reasons for declining birthrates that you may not have considered

Author Timothy P. Carney spoke at BYU about how challenges of modern parenting might be impacting the choice to have children more than issues like affordability

PROVO, Utah — In 2006 and 2007, the United States saw a “huge uptick” in births, said Timothy P. Carney, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Carney’s first child was born during this timeframe, and he recalled the hospital putting her in an overflow nursery set up in a hallway to accommodate the high number of babies. Even celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears had children during these years, he said.

But instead of an expected baby boom, 2008 saw a “baby bust,” and the U.S. birthrate dropped almost every year from 2007 until the 2020 pandemic, Carney said.

This trend has affected how many children are in the country. In 2010, America was home to 74.2 million children ages 0 to 17, according to Carney’s research. By the 2020 census, that number had dropped to 73.6 million, and then fell by 2 million more over the next two years.

Carney outlined these and other findings in his new book, “Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be,” which will be released on March 19 by HarperCollins books.

He spoke about why birth rates are declining and explored challenges of modern parenting during a Brigham Young University Wheatley Institute forum on Thursday, March 14.

Carney said it’s a commonly held belief that affordability concerns and selfishness are the biggest reasons people are increasingly choosing to not have children. But he doesn’t think it’s quite that simple.

Rather, he believes shifts in parenting culture and even shifts in how people view themselves are the biggest factors in why people are delaying or forgoing childbearing.

For instance, Carney said parents feel more pressure than ever to produce the next musical or sports prodigy, pushing their children to excel in extracurricular activities that previous generations thought of only as fun.

And in addition to feeling pressure to do more for their kids, parents feel increasing pressure to do it all alone. This is despite parenting being an inherently “communal undertaking,” but it’s become an individualized endeavor.

“The fact that society is not supposed to help people take care of their children, that’s a new idea. That’s an unhealthy idea,” Carney said.

Doing more for kids: the ‘travel team trap’

One reason people may be holding off starting families is fear they can’t keep up with increasing pressures on parents to help their kids reach near-impossible heights.

Carney coined the term “travel team trap” to describe the trend of parents pushing their children to excel in sports, music or other extracurricular activities. For many parents, playing in Little League is no longer about kids simply having fun — it’s about raising the next baseball star.

Carney said he fell into this trap himself when one of his sons joined his school’s traveling baseball team. At only 12 years old, he was expected to participate in winter workouts, and the coach believed baseball wasn’t fun unless the team was winning. Eventually, his son cut practice to spend time simply throwing a baseball with a friend — and Carney was “plagued” by fear that his son was giving something up, even though his son had long been giving up time with friends and family for baseball events.

“So that, for me, embodies the travel-team ethos and some of its harm, which is turning a game into a job and making children think that the point of sports is just [that] they have to be the best,” Carney said.

That’s not to say that children shouldn’t pursue excellence in whatever their interests are, he clarified. Rather, when kids are made to feel that all their value is tied into how well they’re playing baseball or learning violin, failure can be “devastating.”

He also encouraged parents to not turn bonding time into training sessions — as he once did when he tried to help his son become a better shortstop, when all his son really wanted to do was catch fly balls.

Wheatley Institute forum about the challenges of modern parenting on Thursday, March 14, 2024.
Timothy P. Carney speaks during a BYU Wheatley Institute forum about the challenges of modern parenting on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Carney is the author of "Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs To Be" and is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. | Hanna Seariac

Doing it alone

In addition to believing they have to do more than ever for their children, many parents increasingly believe they have to do it all alone.

Carney said tight-knit communities often have more children because parents know that when they need help, they can lean on their neighbors.

Conversely, when people feel that raising children is an individual endeavor and supporting families isn’t their problem, the choice to even have children can become agonizing.

The nuclear family, Carney said, is “absolutely the most important institution in America,” but it doesn’t live on its own. Just like a heart can’t function without a brain, families were meant to rely on each other.

“The great thing about community is that it’s relational rather than transactional ... you help somebody because they need it,” he said. “And they help you, because nobody’s keeping a ledger. Those are the virtues that are forgotten a lot of [the time].”

Disbelief in people’s goodness

An additional factor in people’s decision to have children may be how they see themselves and humanity as a whole.

Carney said that in his book, he argues that baby booms in previous generations occurred because people believed they were good. For instance, after World War II, American men who’d served as soldiers came home and paired off relatively quickly with women who’d kept the home front running. They believed they were good people and were therefore eager to start families, he said.

Conversely, Germany, Japan and Italy didn’t experience baby booms at that time, Carney said, and he believes it’s because the people in those countries struggled with seeing themselves as good in the wake of World War II.

Today, many people believe humanity is inherently bad, Carney said. He recalled a conversation with a woman who told him she thinks people are “the cancer of the earth.”

Additionally, many people are worried that “overpopulation is killing the planet,” Carney said — despite higher-than-ever numbers of retirees and lower-than-ever numbers of young workers to replace them — and he highlighted a variety of writers who have expounded on their decision to forgo children over concerns such as climate change.

Attitudes like these, Carney said, highlight the need for religion in communities. Many religious cultures teach that people may be sinners, but they’re still inherently good and therefore having more people on earth is good.

Ultimately, having children drives people to become better, Carney said. He spoke of the intense love a person feels when holding their baby, mingled with guilt for falling short as a parent.

“But then hope comes back and says, ... ‘This person is so fresh from God,’” Carney said. “This love that they’re giving [you], that’s what gives you the inspiration and the belief that you should be and can be a better person.”

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