Many families celebrated Mother’s Day this past weekend, though with COVID, those celebrations may have looked a little different than in years past. For those who have lost their mother or have a complicated mother-child relationship; and for those who wanted to be a mother but were unable to make that dream a reality for whatever reason, Mother’s Day can spur mixed emotions.
Recent news about our nation’s birthrate highlights some of the challenges that can impact those who are childless, either by choice or circumstance.
A pandemic baby bust
At the outset of the pandemic last year, there were varying opinions about whether so much …together time… would create a baby boom or a baby bust in America. Well, this past week, we got the answer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest National Center for Health Statistics, revealing that the birth rate in the United States was down more than 6 percent from Q4 of 2019 to Q4 of 2020. These figures are especially insightful since they include December of 2020, which would be the first month when babies conceived after the start of the pandemic would have been born.
The nation’s growth has been slowing for several years now, and the pandemic has only deepened the population decline with fewer births, more deaths, and less immigration.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were 3.6 million births last year in the United States. That’s down 4 percent from 2019 and the lowest number of births since 1979. In fact, for 2020, the birth rate hit a record low of 55.8 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44. Births have now fallen for six years straight, dipping on average 2 percent each year.
The obvious cause of this dramatic decline in births is concerns around the pandemic, though there may be other more long-lasting reasons that explain why fewer people are having children. Crippling student loan debt, soaring housing prices, rising healthcare costs, childcare shortages, and work-life balance challenges are just a few of the reasons some people feel disincentivized to start a family.
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Our graying nation
Low birth rates have a ripple effect down the line, as we are seeing in other so-called “graying” nations like Japan — considered the world’s “oldest” population.
In 1990, about one in eight people in Japan were 65+ years old. Currently, those 65 and older make up about a quarter of Japan’s total population, but it is projected that by 2050, that ratio will reach one in three. Similar to the United States, Japan experienced a “baby boom” after World War II, but that was followed by a prolonged period of low birth rates, thus leading to their current high percentage of aging citizens.
Here in the U.S., the Census Bureau projects that by 2034, seniors will officially outnumber children with people age 65+ expected to number 77.0 million and children under age 18 numbering 76.5 million. This “graying” of America sits at the nexus of longer life expectancy, lower birth rates, and declines in immigration.
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Long-term impacts of decreasing birth rates
The long-term implications of fewer people having children can be far-reaching.
The decline in the younger population of the U.S. means that there will be fewer young, healthy people to care for the older, more frail ones. This is a concerning inevitability whether these younger folks are paid caregivers or unpaid family caregivers.
We are already experiencing a caregiving crisis in this country with too few people willing or able to do the sometimes low-paid and often grueling work of caring for our older population. Add to the equation the dip in immigration (with recent immigrants serving as a pool of potential job applicants) and you can see why this problem will only increase in the years to come.
>> Related: Inflection Point: Our Nation’s Ever-Growing Long-Term Care Crisis
Less Social Security revenue
Another long-term concern tied to declining birth rates is the impact on the tax base, and more specifically, the viability of the Social Security system, which millions of retirees depend on.
Social Security provides monthly income to over 50 million retirees, disabled workers, and their families. The program is financed by payroll taxes from over 150 million workers and employers, but for better or worse, Social Security is essentially set up like a government-sanctioned Ponzi scheme. Younger workers paying into the system today are funding the payments going to the current pool of retirees.
Changes to Social Security put into effect in 1983 mean that benefits should be payable to recipients until 2037 when trust fund reserves are expected to be exhausted. Once those reserves are used up, taxes being paid into the system are expected to be enough to cover 76 percent of scheduled benefits. But after that point, because of a shrinking workforce and increasing number of retirees, Congress will have to make changes to the scheduled benefits and/or to the revenue sources in order for the program to remain solvent.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues surrounding decreased birth rates is the resultant increase in so-called “elder orphans” or “soloagers” — seniors with neither a spouse/life partner nor adult children.
The divorce rate for those age 50 and older has more than doubled since 1990. This stark uptick in “silver divorces,” in conjunction with the declining birth rate, means an increase in the number of soloagers. According to AARP, in 2000, 16 percent of Americans 85 and older had no living adult children, and by 2040, it is projected that the figure could reach over 20 percent.
Soloagers may lack a family support system to help if and when they have age-related care needs, require help with their finances, legal, or medical decisions, or face a health crisis. With more people remaining childless — again, whether it be by choice or by circumstance — the rate of soloaging is only going to continue to go up in the decades to come.
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Addressing the influx of soloagers
Higher divorce rates and lower birth rates in the U.S. mean we can expect to have a steady increase in the number of soloagers. These folks can of course enjoy a happy, healthy, and fulfilling retirement, surrounded by loving extended family and a close-knit group of friends. But there are special considerations they may need to take into account.
For instance, it is especially important that soloagers have their legal affairs in order, like a will, a power of attorney, and advance directives. This ensures their proxies understand their wishes should the senior be unable to make decisions for themselves.
It also is especially important for soloagers to make plans for their potential long-term care needs, since they do not have adult children or a spouse/partner who will be there to care for them. Opting to move to a continuing care community (CCRC or life plan community) can offer even more peace of mind to soloagers since they know that any care needs they may eventually have will be provided for by the community.
If you would like to learn more about life plan communities in your area, be sure to check out myLifeSite’s free online community search tool!
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