Utah fertility rate falls below the ‘replacement rate’ for the first time

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Karri Hallman reads The Big Hungry Bear to a group of kids at the Daycare and Child Development Center in Midvale. Utah's fertility rate has just dropped below the replacement rate — something many thought would never happen in a state known for big families.

It may mean that Satan is ice skating in a frozen-over hell. Fertility in Utah — known for huge families — has for the first time dropped below the “replacement rate,” or the level where a generation can exactly replace itself.

“They said it would never happen here,” said Pam Perlich, senior demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute. “No one who knew the old Utah ever expected this to happen — or so quickly. The drop has been precipitous.”

The 2018 total fertility rate for Utah — the number of children each woman here would expect to have in her lifetime — has now dropped to 2.03, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics.

The replacement rate is considered to be 2.1. Utah was essentially at that level in 2017, and now with new data for 2018 dropped below it.

The new rate is less than half of Utah’s fertility rate back in 1960 of 4.3. It also comes after 11 straight years of decreases since the rate was 2.68 in 2007. “When you see 11 years consecutively of declining total fertility rates, that is a definitive trend,” Perlich said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

She predicts the drops likely will continue.

“Will it reverse? That’s doubtful. It’ll probably stabilize at some point,” Perlich said. “But this declining fertility rate is a global phenomenon. And Utah is more and more integrated into the global community, so we are being pulled by these same trends and forces.”

Utah for decades had the highest fertility rate in the nation. But the state has dropped to No. 4 — behind South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska. Its 2.03 rate is still significantly higher than the national fertility rate of 1.73.

Perlich lists numerous reasons behind Utah’s declining rate, from people choosing fewer children because of the high cost of living to fewer immigrants from countries that have large families — and changes among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had the reputation for many children.

“In the past, it was not unusual to see Utah parents with six kids,” Perlich said. “A Mormon family now is much more likely to be four kids, or three kids or even two kids. So, yes, there are fewer and fewer households that have very large numbers of kids.”

She said recent Utah generations are more likely to delay marriage, and then have fewer children.

“It’s expensive to have kids. More women work, and affordable child care looms large in the decision on whether to have children. It’s in short supply,” Perlich said.

She said the Mormon culture still has a strong imprint on Utah demographics. “But that culture is also trending towards the nation.”

For example, the report says Utah has the lowest rate of births to unmarried women. But at 19.2%, that is still high compared to the past here. (The highest such rate in the nation is 54.1% in Mississippi).

Also, more outsiders have been moving to Utah — and are bringing different cultural norms with them that have helped to reduce family sizes.

“Our labor market has been sizzling hot here for the last while. The types of jobs in high demand have brought a different type of person to the state,” Perlich said. “We’ve brought a lot of young professionals — and more highly educated people generally have lower fertility rates.”

Also, past heavy immigration from Mexico and Central America — where large families are common — has dropped off in the past decade.

“Now internationally, we’re getting more people from Asia. That’s a source region with lower fertility rates,” Perlich said.

She adds that a cumulative impact from all those changes is that “it makes it tougher to have the workforce you need.” With fewer births, she sees the state needing to attract more outsiders to fill employment needs — which will further change the culture of the state.

Also, she adds, “What it means for the future is more of the nonworking age population will be older [and retired] rather than young.”

Perlich adds that the latest data marks a major shift in the state’s population trends.

“This is really a watershed moment for the state,” she said. “Many people have been kind of in disbelief that this could be happening in Utah.”