What Utah’s historically low fertility rate means for Utah

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Utah population estimates released this week confirm a deceleration in growth. Utah births fell to their lowest level in 18 years. With net in-migration also tapering off, Utah’s population increased in 2018 by a healthy but modest 1.69 percent.

There are many storylines about Utah’s growth, but of greatest interest to me is the steady decline in Utah’s fertility rate. Utah’s total fertility rate — a measure of births per woman — has dropped for 10 consecutive years. Utah’s current fertility rate of 2.12 is at a historical low and rapidly approaching replacement level. Demographers define 2.10 as replacement level, or the level of fertility at which the population replaces itself from one generation to the next.

This is new territory for Utah.

I find it instructive to unpack Utah’s declining fertility rate. First, let’s be clear: Utah’s fertility rate remains high relative to other states, currently ranking second among states to South Dakota. The Beehive State will continue to have a relatively high fertility rate. It’s just much lower than it used to be.

Second, Utah faces many of the same powerful events and trends that impact national fertility, which has also declined in recent years and currently stands well below replacement level. Advances in birth control (most notably the oral contraceptive pill), increasing female participation in the labor force, and rising educational attainment of women significantly impact choices about childbearing.

In-migration also impacts fertility. Migrants often bring different fertility patterns to their new home.

There’s one trend unique to Utah that deserves attention: the mission-age policy change of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2012, the LDS Church lowered the age requirement for men and women to serve voluntary ecclesiastical missions. LDS men can serve a mission starting at age 18 (down from 19), and LDS women can serve starting at 19 (down from 21).

This age change, particularly for women, poses many intriguing questions: Will female missionaries delay marriage? Will they delay childbearing? Will they return from their missions and chose to further their education? Will they pursue a professional career?

With six years of history, and as Utah’s fertility rate continues to plummet, we have new insights about the answers to these questions.

I’ve always felt that as young LDS women leave home, see new parts of the world, serve in leadership positions, gain confidence and strengthen their sense of self that something powerful would happen. I’ve predicted they would return with more skills and feel more empowered. They would embrace a new sense of enthusiasm for what they can do in their lives, including a yearning for more education and meaningful careers. They would continue to feel an absolute commitment to starting a family; it just wouldn’t happen as early and the families wouldn’t be as large.

Like any trend, the evidence is not entirely clear. I welcome alternative points of view. Utah’s fertility drop preceded the age-change in missionary service by four years. Utah women were clearly choosing to have fewer children well before the change.

But one thing can’t be argued: If Utah’s fertility rate remains at current levels or lower, Utah will be different. Growth pressures on Utah’s public education system will lessen. The competitive advantages of Utah’s youthful workforce — growing, healthy, inexpensive and tech savvy — may become less beneficial and prominent. The ratio of workers to retirees collecting Social Security will continue to fall.

Author Jonathan Last wrote a compelling book about America’s low birth rate. He said: “There is something about modernity itself that tends toward fewer children.” He’s right, and Utah is not immune. As society becomes wealthier, we have more choices. Childbearing changes the opportunity set for women. My guess is that part of the “New Utah” is smaller family sizes and more women in professional careers. As one who has done both, I recognize the challenges and opportunities that await.