Less Sex, Fewer Babies: Blame The Internet And Career Priorities

Aug 6, 2019
Originally published on August 12, 2019 12:26 pm

Nate Koch isn't sure what to make of the online dating scene.

"There's no rules," the 23-year-old Colorado resident says. "We don't know what to do on these apps. It feels like kind of, like, the Wild West."

And it can often feel extremely time-consuming and unproductive, says Koch, a recent college graduate. "I'm literally applying to jobs at the same time that I'm dating. The similarity between the two is a little, like, horrifying to me," he says.

The confusion over the rules of romance in the digital age shared by Koch and so many others might explain why millions of Americans are having less sex than previous generations did at the same age. Add in a focus on building a career before having a family, and it all may be contributing to a national birthrate that keeps falling.

All this raises alarms for the economy. Economies need new workers to replace older workers as they retire. When a nation's birthrate drops too low, certain sectors can experience employee shortages, and ultimately, the economy might shrink.

Like an increasing number of young people in America, Koch is single.

"When I was in high school, I really liked that show How I Met Your Mother," he says. Shows like that, he says, "created this sort of image of what it's like to be in your 20s. You know, you're hanging out in bars, and you're just sort of meeting people in these strange ways."

But, Koch says, everything about online dating today feels incredibly less straightforward than a sitcom.

Many young men and women across the country have been having less sex than those in previous generations. Almost a quarter of adults under 30 didn't have sex in the last year — a record high, according to the 2018 General Social Survey from NORC at the University of Chicago.

There are reasons besides just online dating, but experts and journalists have declared that America is in the middle of a "sex drought" or "sex recession."

Part of the explanation is the challenges of online dating. Part of it is that people are spending more time alone on the Internet. Part of it is about young men and women waiting longer to find life partners or to cohabitate as they prioritize getting their careers and finances in order.

But, whatever the reason, it's leading to less sex and fewer births. The birthrate dropped 2% between 2017 and 2018 — and the number of births slid to a 32-year low.

Koch says he expected to at least know who his wife would be by this time in his life, even if he didn't think he'd get married for a few years. But he says the difficulty of online dating has slowed down his timeline for marriage — and for having babies.

Another reason America's birthrate has dipped so low is that many women are dealing with career considerations first.

Rashmi Venkatesh, a married 30-year-old with a Ph.D., works in science research. She says her job is in many ways her No. 1 priority right now.

She had pictured "a fully formed professional life and a fully formed family life." But, she says, the family life "has gone by the wayside."

Venkatesh says she's moving up the career ladder really quickly. So when she thinks of having a child, she worries it might hurt her advancement. She says she couldn't even imagine taking 10 or 12 weeks off for a new baby.

"You would miss something," she says. "Or the time that I spend in the evening reading up on things would now be focused on something else — a child, which I guess is very important! It sounds awful when I say that."

Like many working women, Venkatesh worries about losing income if she leaves work to have a child, and she worries about the cost of child care.

When Venkatesh was younger, she says, she imagined having three children. Now she thinks one, down the road, is more realistic.

"It's a bummer," she says. "It's a bummer for sure."

The longer women like Venkatesh wait to have a child, the fewer children they're likely to have.

So, though the reasons are many and vary for men and women, America is in the midst of a sex (and baby) drought that it just can't seem to get out of.

But the United States is not alone. Developed nations across the world have been experiencing the same thing. Western Europe is dealing with falling birthrates, and Japan's birthrate has dipped so low its population has started to fall.

Jennifer Glass, a demographer at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that some countries have tried to boost their birthrates by urging citizens to get busy.

One commercial from Denmark featured parents "bemoaning the fact that their children had not yet produced grandchildren for them and they were going to pay them to go on a [vacation] so that they would come home pregnant and give them grandchildren," Glass says.

It ends with a voice saying, "Do it for Denmark. Do it for mom."

YouTube

Glass says those kinds of appeals rarely work. But other things do: "a [family leave] policy that gives you four to six months, almost completely paid, and is available to both partners," she says. Subsidized child care also helps, she says.

Glass and many other experts see a third fix: immigration.

Immigrants tend to be younger — the kind of workers aging economies need — and new immigrants often have birthrates that are higher than those of the native-born population.

"We should not worry about the birthrate in the United States," says Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. "If we want to let those people come to this country, we can solve any problem you can think of related to population size."

America's debate over just how many immigrants should be coming may not be over anytime soon. So the baby drought seems bound to continue until there's a shift — in the workplace, online or in the bedroom.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People not having enough babies could ultimately cause the economy to shrink. When a nation's birthrate declines too much, there aren't enough young workers to replace and support those who retire. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says births in the U.S. are at their lowest level in 32 years. NPR's Sam Sanders looks at three big reasons why - careers, money and sex.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Let's start with sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Americans are in the middle of a sex recession.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Less sex than ever before.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Sex - millennials are not having as much of it as their parents or grandparents did.

SANDERS: For a few years now, America has been in what many are calling a sex recession or a sex drought. The General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, it found that in 2018, almost a quarter of adults under 30 didn't have sex in the last year. Almost 1 in 4 young adults sexless. That's a record high. Part of the explanation is everyone's spending more time alone on the Internet, but also younger people are waiting longer to find a life partner or even cohabitate. For a lot of young men, that's not always by choice. Nate Koch is 23, recent college graduate, lives in Colorado, and he is currently single.

NATE KOCH: When I was in high school, I really liked that show "How I Met Your Mother." I feel like shows like that created this sort of image of what it's like to be in your 20s. And you're hanging out in bars and you're just sort of, like, meeting people in these strange ways and you're a wingman for other...

SANDERS: Koch says everything about online dating today, it feels incredibly less straightforward than a sitcom.

KOCH: There's, like, no rules anymore. Like, we don't know what to do on these apps. It feels like kind of like the Wild West.

SANDERS: Koch says online dating in many ways is good. It gives women more power over their dating and sex lives. And he says it's making men question some of the power they've always had. I talked to another young man, also in his 20s, not Nate Koch. And he told me that his dad asked his mom out five times before she said yes. That kind of behavior may sound sweet in retrospect, but today, online, that could be considered harassment. Figuring out these new rules can be hard. For Nate Koch, it's time consuming.

KOCH: I'm literally applying to jobs at the same time that I'm dating. The similarity between the two is a little bit, like, horrifying to me. Like, it feels like I'm doing the same thing.

SANDERS: All of this has slowed down Koch's potential baby timeline.

KOCH: I thought that I would probably know the person that I was going to get married to by my age now. Like...

SANDERS: I guess you're saying that you thought at this point you'd be further along that track.

KOCH: What - are you trying to depress me?

SANDERS: More women are dealing with another reason we're seeing America's birthrate dip so low - career considerations. Rashmi Venkatesh is 30 years old and married. She has a Ph.D. and she works in science research. Her job is kind of her No. 1 priority right now.

RASHMI VENKATESH: Having pictured in the past a fully formed professional life and a fully formed family life and having realized that for most of us, one of those things has gone by the wayside, and that thing is the family life.

SANDERS: Venkatesh says she's still in that phase of her career where she's moving up the ladder really quickly. So when she thinks of having a kid, she worries that it might hurt her career advancement. She tells me she couldn't even imagine taking, like, 10 or 12 weeks off for a new baby.

VENKATESH: Two and a half months off, you would miss something or, you know, the time that I spend in the evening reading up on things, the time that I spend outside of work thinking about problems at work, would now be focused on something else - a child.

SANDERS: On top of all this - money. Venkatesh worries about losing income if she leaves work to have a kid, and she worries about one big new expense a baby would bring - child care. The cost of child care is eating up more of families' incomes than in decades past. Venkatesh says that when she was younger, she imagined several kids.

VENKATESH: The number three always seemed like a good number, like a number that was right.

SANDERS: So then now being 30, do you still think three?

VENKATESH: Realistically, no.

SANDERS: Wow. How does that make you feel?

VENKATESH: It's a bummer. It's a bummer for sure.

SANDERS: The longer women like Venkatesh wait to have a kid, the fewer kids they're likely to have. Jennifer Glass is a demographer at The University of Texas at Austin. She says America's baby drought and sex recession, it's happening in other developed countries, too. Some have tried to fix it by urging citizens to get busy. Glass says one commercial from Denmark is the craziest.

JENNIFER GLASS: There were grandparents bemoaning the fact that their children had not yet produced grandchildren for them. And they were going to pay them to go on a holiday. So I thought those were quite amusing.

SANDERS: The end of one of those Danish commercials sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do it for Denmark. Do it for mom.

SANDERS: Do it for Denmark. Do it for mom. Professor Glass says that stuff doesn't work, but other things do.

GLASS: What we need is a policy that gives you four to six months almost completely paid and is available to both partners. The second thing that works is to have subsidized child care available.

SANDERS: And there's another fix - immigration. Immigrants tend to be younger, the kind of workers aging economies need. And new immigrants often have childbirth rates that are higher than the native-born population.

PHILIP COHEN: We should not worry about the birthrate in the United States.

SANDERS: Philip Cohen is a sociologist at the University of Maryland.

COHEN: If we want to let those people come to this country, we can solve any problem you can think of related to population size.

SANDERS: America's ongoing debate over just how many immigrants should be coming here - that may not be over anytime soon. So the baby drought seems bound to continue until there is a shift in the workplace, online or the bedroom.

Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.