Utah’s fertility rate falls below replacement level

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Last week the National Center for Health Statistics released final birth data for 2018. The verdict is in. Utah’s total fertility rate dropped for the eleventh consecutive year and, for the first time, dropped below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. Utah’s fertility rate now stands at 2.03 births per woman and three states — South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska — have higher fertility rates than Utah.

For as long as I can remember, Utah’s fertility rate has ranked highest in the nation. I never thought it would fall below replacement level, which is the number of children sufficient to replace both parents from one generation to the next, without migration. In 1960, the fertility rate stood at 4.3 births per woman, more than two births higher than today. That’s a significant difference and one that will have a profound impact on Utah’s future.

The most telling difference will be in Utah’s public education system, which has for years struggled with large class sizes and lowest-in-the-nation per pupil funding. Fewer births means fewer kindergartners in five years. The cumulative impact of fewer children will do more to increase per pupil spending in Utah’s public schools than any lobbying group or politician.

Another big difference will be the age composition of Utah’s workforce. Utah’s young workforce has been a competitive advantage in corporate recruitment, a benefit that will moderate in the future. Young workers cost less because they are early in their careers and have low health care costs. They are also digital natives who adapt well to technological change.

We will need the 2020 Census results and additional research before demographers can definitively explain Utah’s decline in fertility. In past decades, advances in birth control (most notably the oral contraceptive pill), increasing female labor force participation rates and rising educational attainment explained lower fertility. But these mega-forces have been in place now for decades. Something else is going on.

The Great Recession played a role. Utah’s fertility rate held steady in the 2.8 to 2.5 range for 22 years (1985-2007), before plummeting during the Great Recession. Utah lost over 100,000 jobs during the downturn. Utah families responded to the uncertainty and economic hardship by having fewer children.

But the Utah economy has been in recovery now for more than a decade. The current economic expansion is the longest in state history and yet fertility remains on a downward trend.

I surmise the two most obvious explanations for the decline are Utah’s significant in-migration and the missionary-age policy change in 2012 of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Approximately 120,000 more people have moved into the state than have moved out over the past five years. That is a net in-migration equivalent to the population of Provo. These new migrants bring their own fertility patterns with them.

The missionary-age change dramatically increased the number of female missionaries. Nearly 1 in 4 missionaries from Utah are now female. Many speculate their service will result in later marriages and delayed childbirth. I also think when female missionaries live away from home, see new parts of the world, serve in leadership positions, gain more confidence, and strengthen their sense of self they will be drawn to seek more education and meaningful careers. If this is true, Utah’s fertility rate will continue to trend toward the nation’s.

My mother taught me that demography is destiny. She believed if you can understand your population makeup you can predict your future. It begs the question: What does Utah’s future hold?

I predict we will continue to be one of the youngest and most rapidly growing states in the nation. That’s not going to change even with our lower fertility. Our diverse economy and attractive lifestyle will continue to attract new migrants. Utah’s population will continue to diversify, urbanize and age. And, we will continue to become more like the nation. This is the new Utah.

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