Leading aspiration indicator: U.S. birthrate below France’s?

by Ryan Streeter on August 27, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

If you haven’t read Joel Kotkin’s last Forbes column, you should. When writing about America’s demographic future, Joel is usually pretty cheerful. That’s why it was a little alarming to see him conclude his latest piece this way:

Without strong economic growth, it seems likely that family formation and birthrates will continue downward everywhere, particularly as economic realities force reductions in state aid. A mindlessly ever-expanding welfare state, trying to enlist more clients, even tiny ones, will diminish private sector growth and usher in even more quickly the onset of “demographic winter.” A lethal demographic cocktail of high taxes, low growth and fewer babies could set the stage for an even greater financial crisis in the decades ahead.

The latest recession has taken our birthrates below France’s. Kotkin writes:

The U.S. fertility rate dropped from over 2.1 births per woman in 2007 to 1.9 last year, below replacement rate for the first time since the mid-1980s. The 2010 Census found that the number of households that have children under age 18 was 38 million, unchanged from 2000, despite a 9.7% growth in the U.S. population over that period.

Getting married and having children is one of the most basic, and most important, expressions of an aspirational society. Having kids is always a future-oriented decision. Our plummeting birthrates are a disquieting signal of what’s happening to American aspiration these days.