Americans have never been older.
The nation’s median age reached 38.9 in 2022, according to new Census data; that’s the highest it has ever been.
Median age is the chronological midpoint in the U.S. population, and it has been creeping up for decades. In 2000, the median age was 35. In 1980, it was 30. A century ago, in 1920, it was 25.
Americans might take comfort if the nation were getting older because people were living longer. They are not. Life expectancy has declined to 76.4 years, the lowest figure in two decades, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, overdoses, accidents and suicides, among other causes.
Median age is rising because the birthrate is falling. Americans are having babies at an annual rate of about 11 children per 1,000 people, according to federal data. In 1950 and 1960, at the height of the baby boom, the birthrate was more than twice as high.
The birthrate is falling, population experts say, because women are choosing not to have children. More specifically, American society is forcing them to choose between children and a career.
“Birthrates are about women’s lives, about gender equality,” said Barbara Risman, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When you have a society set up such that women find a conflict between caretaking and working for pay, then you have low birthrates.”
Other wealthy nations chip in $14,000 a year, on average, toward a toddler’s care, according to a New York Times analysis. Parents in Denmark pay no more than one-quarter of day care costs. A new program in Canada reduces day care fees to as little as $7.60 a day.
The United States spends about $500 a year per child on early child care, making it an outlier among affluent countries. Parents of a 2-year-old in America can expect to pay $1,100 a month on child care, the Times found, assuming they can find a provider.
“It’s the difference between being able to afford child care or not,” said Margot Jackson, a sociology professor at Brown University.
In the United States, Jackson said, “it often doesn’t make sense for parents to work, because they’re often making less than the cost of child care.”
America is an outlier, too, in providing parental leave to working mothers.
European Union nations provide 65 weeks of paid maternity, parental and homecare leave to mothers, on average, according to an analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The United States provides none.
“The places that have done it really well have figured out ways to allow parents to have children and to be home with children for a while without having total economic insecurity,” Jackson said.
Employment rates among American mothers rise with the ages of their children. Roughly two-thirds of women work when their children are under age 6. The employment rate rises to 77 percent when the children are school age.
Declining birth rates and aging populations are global problems.
The United States ranks 61st in a Central Intelligence Agency ranking of 227 nations by median age. The oldest countries include Japan, with a median age of 49; Germany, median age 48; Italy, median age 47; and Spain, median age 44.
“Most of the world is getting older,” said Ashton Verdery, a sociologist and demographer at Pennsylvania State University.
With a chronically low birthrate, Japan “is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a recent speech. “Focusing attention on policies regarding children and child-rearing is an issue that cannot wait and cannot be postponed.”
Kishida said he wants the Japanese government to double down on programs for children, building a “child-first” economy to reverse the sliding birthrate.
Seniors now make up roughly 30 percent of the Japanese population. Government leaders fear a future workforce too small to support their care.
In broader economic terms, a declining birthrate threatens to deplete any nation’s available workforce. Fewer workers means less economic growth.
America’s labor force continues to grow, notwithstanding a brief hiccup during the pandemic. For that growth to continue, demographers say, the nation needs immigrants.
“If the working-age population is to increase over the next 15 years, it’s because of immigrants who aren’t here yet,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew Research Center.
Since about 2015, immigrants and their children have sustained America’s working-age population, according to a Pew analysis. Without new immigrants, Passel said, the nation’s workforce would be in decline.
New immigrants, primarily from Latin America, keep America young.
“Immigrants and their children are younger than the population as a whole,” said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Non-Hispanic white people make up 75 percent of the over-65 population in the United States but only 49 percent of the under-18 group, according to Frey’s analysis of Census data.
Hispanics, by contrast, make up 26 percent of the under-18s and only 9 percent of the over-65s.
The median age for non-Hispanic white people is 43, Census data show. For Hispanics, the median age is 31.
In years to come, “immigration at even moderate levels will help to slow the aging of the population,” Passel said.
Immigration has muted a national population crisis that began around 1965, as the baby boom faded.
The national birthrate dipped from 24 babies per 1,000 people in 1960 to 18 in 1970. It staged a modest recovery in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when boomers had children of their own, christening the millennial generation. Then, the decline resumed.
An aging America “is something most people should have expected and been planning for,” Frey said, “because it’s been in the works for decades.”
And continued immigration is key to slowing the trend.
“If you’re going to come up with government policies to try to deal with this,” Frey said, “immigration is the best way to do it. People always want to come to the United States.” Yet, immigration policy has “become such a political football that nobody wants to have a conversation about it.”
Policymakers can address the declining birthrate, sociologists say, by making parenthood more appealing to the nation’s young adults.
Research suggests women are having fewer children than they desire, because of the aforementioned challenges with parental leave and child care, as well as rising housing costs and student loan debt, among other factors.
“We’ve created a society where it’s very hard to be a worker and a parent,” said Risman, the sociology professor.
Unless American society is prepared to make a massive investment in children and families, she said, the birthrate isn’t likely to budge.