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Parents in their late 20s helped Utah’s falling fertility rate finally hit a plateau

Policy experts say Utah’s shift toward slightly older parents could be a reaction to other factors — like increases in housing expenses and cost of living.
Sean Higgins
Policy experts say Utah’s shift toward slightly older parents could be a reaction to other factors — like increases in housing expenses and cost of living.

Utah’s falling fertility rate has virtually stopped its yearslong decline. According to a new analysis by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, the statewide fertility rate stayed put between 2020 and 2021, only decreasing by 0.1%.

In the previous decade, Utah experienced a more than 20% drop in fertility, per the report, slipping from the most fertile state in the nation in 2015 to fourth by 2021. In a state known for a laser focus on family, the steadier numbers are welcome news.

“When I saw this fertility data and seeing that the fertility rate did not decline for the first time in a while, that was really big news to me,” said Emily Harris, the institute’s senior demographer and author of the report. “It's a reverse of a trend that we've been seeing for a while.”

The state’s peak childbearing age range of 25 to 29 years old saw a sizable increase in babies, while ages 20 to 24 saw the sharpest decline. That increase, Harris said, was largely responsible for the overall fertility rate holding steady from 2020-2021 at an average of 1.92 children per person between the ages of 15 and 49, which is considered childbearing age.

I think the biggest thing to note is the increase in older moms, and by older, I mean mid- to late-20s,” said Holly Richardson, editor of the Utah Policy newsletter and a retired midwife. “Utah used to have a higher percentage of younger women having babies.”

The overall demographic trends in Utah are shifting toward an older and older population. As it relates to parenthood, the state isn’t alone.

This is happening pretty widely across the United States, and different states are basically in different phases of that,” said Harris. “There are some places like especially the coastal states … their peak childbearing age is 30 to 34. Utah is just kind of right now in the middle of this shift.”

New Mexico saw the largest decrease in fertility in the institute’s report, sliding backward by 2.2%. Connecticut saw the largest increase growing 5.4%.

When parents choose to wait longer to have their first child, there’s a strong likelihood that they will have fewer children overall. Why they make that choice is another question.

“This report is just looking at fertility rates and this data doesn't tell us why [people are waiting to have children],” said Harris. “What we do know is that there are cultural shifts occurring where the expectations are just different than they were 20 or 30 years ago.”

With housing costs continuing to rise, some policy experts think a number of factors could be at play when it comes to why someone might choose to wait before starting a family.

I do see economic pressure, actually,” said Richardson. “Even within my own family, we have those same kinds of pressures. We have our children who are marrying in their mid- to late-20s and they're having babies after that. And I think when you look at starter homes that are now a half a million dollars, you need two-earner households and they usually have to work for a little while to be able to afford a down payment.”

Still, it’s probably too early to determine whether this brief plateau is indicative of any lasting trend. Harris wants to have more data points in hand to see if it holds. She doesn’t think Utah's fertility rates are “going to go back to what they were,” instead, “they'll probably level off for a while and maybe increase a little bit.”

On the other hand, Richardson suspects Utah will continue to see falling rates in the future.

“But in many ways, I hope that I'm proven wrong,” she said.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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