Q&A: Ashton Verdery

Ashton Verdery on concerns over the U.S. fertility rate in the age of COVID-19.

Baby Carriage with graphic arrows pointing down

Q: Even before the pandemic, the U.S. fertility rate was declining dramatically. What’s been driving this?
Marriage rates have dropped, many women aren’t having children until their 30s. Economic challenges like the affordability of housing, rising student loan debt, and the cost and availability of childcare are putting people off from having kids. There’s also a growing concern about climate change and the health of the planet.

Q: How will COVID-19 impact this?
We’re going to see a further decline, and though it will be temporary, it will be significant. Because of the social isolation, people have postponed weddings and having kids. We’re likely to see an increase in divorces, too. All of those will impact fertility rates.

Q: Why are falling fertility rates a big deal?
Demographically, fewer babies translates to fewer younger workers, which will impact economic vitality. More older adults means a greater number of retirees drawing from entitlement programs. The ratio of that demographic to younger people paying into those programs is already much higher than when they started, and the difference will become more pronounced as the average age of the population increases.

Q: Is the country prepared for these sorts of challenges?
There are simple policy solutions that can probably stem the strain of larger numbers of older people: raising the retirement age, for example, and lifting the cap on social security taxes. The question is whether we’re willing to make those switches. The pandemic is creating its own economic challenges. For instance, we know the pandemic has reduced tax revenues and probably narrowed the capacity for government spending to plug some holes. At the same time, it may lead more people to work past traditional retirement ages and postpone drawing social security, which may reduce some pressures while introducing a host of other social challenges.

Q: What sort of social challenges?
Many older adults depend on their families for support, so as the pool of people who can provide that support shrinks, it’s going to become very difficult. I don’t think we’re ready to meet the needs of the mass aging population without major changes.

Q: Demographic indicators show that people are living longer and in better health. How will this pandemic impact that?
The pandemic will likely contribute to meaningful declines in life expectancy—building on other declines like the HIV/AIDS epidemic in parts of the world, and the opioid crisis in our country. There may also be a large number of people living in worse health for a longer period of time, and needing more care, than we would have expected 10 months ago. —SI

Ashton Verdery is the Harry and Elissa Sichi Early Career Professor of Sociology, Demography, and Social Data Analytics and an associate at Penn State’s Population Research Institute.