As with much of the nation, Utah’s fertility rate has declined each year since the Great Recession in 2008. But experts disagree about whether this poses a problem for the state, which remains one of the most fertile and one of the fastest-growing.
Utah averaged 2.29 births per woman in 2015 down from 2.68 in 2007, compared to a nationwide average of 1.84 in 2015. This lower fertility rate is likely to persist, according to speakers at a Thursday seminar hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.
The panel debated why the rate is ticking down, and what it means for the economy and the state’s predominant Mormon population, since a lower number of births per woman makes a state more reliant on migration.
Joel Kotkin, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California, said expecting people moving to the state to make up for lower numbers of births could be dangerous if Utahns want to maintain their local culture.
“The idea of maintaining our culture is very, very critical,” he said. “It’s not the same thing if I say, ‘all you wealthy affluent Europeans, stop having kids and we’ll just import the surplus from some other part of the world’… look at what’s happening in Europe right now, where birthrates have been really low for a long time.”
Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research for the Gardner Institute, who came to Utah from Oklahoma, rejected this notion, arguing that diversity enriches communities. She cited her adopted tradition of Dutch-oven cooking.
However, Utahns should be prepared for changes as their state’s population ages and diversifies, she said.
“For a place that has seen itself as forever young, forever white and forever homogeneous, every single one of those things has changed,” she said. “We need to get our heads around the fact that all of this is very different.”
While Utah’s fertility rate is stuck in an eight-year decline, Perlich notes, the state has experienced a strong economic recovery that is attracting new residents from elsewhere in the U.S. — and even throughout the world. In the next 50 years, she projected, people who move into the state will account for one-third of its growth. Of them, half will be immigrants from other countries.
But Samuel Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence, a consulting firm that provides data about trends in marriage and family to many of the nation’s top companies and to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Utahn’s desire for children hasn’t changed much.
Most Utahns said their “ideal” family, Sturgeon said, would contain three to four kids. Mormons are only waiting slightly longer to marry than they used to, he said — the percentage of students at the LDS Church‘s Brigham Young University who are married hasn’t changed significantly since the 1980s.
What has changed, Sturgeon said, is that most couples are waiting longer after getting married to have their first child.
Nationally, Perlich said, fertility rates have declined the most among teens, and among women ages 20-24. Births to women in their early 30s have remained mostly flat, and have increased slightly among women ages 35-39.
So it’s not clear, Sturgeon said, whether Utah and the U.S. as a whole will see the rate rebound, or whether the dip reflects a trend toward starting a family later in life.
The panelists also debated whether or not the delay suggested financial strife or a societal lack of support for young families.
Kotkin pointed out that the rate has declined in some areas more than others — particularly on the coast and in cities with high-priced, high-density urban housing, such as New York, San Francisco or Seattle. That led him to conclude that the cost of housing, coupled with student debt and stagnated middle-class incomes, might prevent Americans from having children as early as they might like.
“I think economics clearly play a role,” Sturgeon agreed. “When you’re living in your parents’ basement, things are a little different.”
Perlich also highlighted the high cost of childcare, and the difficulty both men and women face in finding employers who are supportive of young families. She said she believed this was true even in Utah, where many still adhere to the ideal that women stay home to raise their children.
“For me, the big bottom line is, are we adequately supporting young families?” she said. “Do we provide the support that makes it possible for people to have children? There’s a whole constellation of things that need to be in place for people to feel comfortable about having children.”
But Sturgeon said young people might choose to have children later in life simply to avoid the struggles their parents and grandparents faced because they had to start their careers and families at the same time.
“Kids grew up with stories of the poor college students,” he said, “and they’re saying we don’t necessarily have to do that.”
Millennials still want children, Sturgeon argued, but they’re strategic in their family planning. He said many among their generation have come to resent the suggestion that they must do everything the way their parents did it, given they have grown up with a different set of challenges. As examples, he cited the high cost of college, and later the fact that millennials are on track to be the first generation of Americans who are not wealthier than their parents.