Story hunting in birth, death data

Note: I revise this post each time new data arrives. It currently reflects final 2016 U.S. birth data and 2016 U.S. mortality data, both available as of early 2018.

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The U.S. government’s annual count of births and deaths is among the most basic of demographics, but tracking it is one of my little obsessions. I keep annual totals in a spreadsheet and always look forward to whenever I can add another year to the pile.

Year-over-year changes occasionally show a surprising upturn or drop that’s worth writing about, such as when U.S. births in 2014 showed an increase for the first time in seven years. Just as often, the new number’s less interesting on its own. In January 2018, for example, the National Center for Health Statistics released data showing that the number of births in the U.S. dipped slightly in 2016. Year over year, it’s not much of a noteworthy change.

Instead, with demographic data (and other topics, such as economic data), it’s useful to take a long-term view. For example, below are the annual number of births and deaths from 1933 to 2016 plotted via the Google Charts API. Hover for details:

These two fever lines contain several generational milestones worth watching. But perhaps more interesting and newsy is the developing pattern at the far right of the chart.

At a time when the annual number of deaths continues to climb (give partial credit to the leading edge of the Baby Boomer generation passing age 70), the number of births in the U.S. has remained level for six years. In fact, the ratio of births to deaths, 1.44 in 2016, is lower than it was in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression.

The chief cause: declining fertility rates, a trend which has demographers sounding alarms  and news organizations taking note. It’s the sort of storyline that invites a deeper analysis.

But data on births and deaths data are full of such storylines. Consider:

  • The first baby boomers — those born in 1946 — turned 70 in 2016.
  • The Gen Xers that follow are marching toward middle age, now in their mid 30s to early 50s. (Gen X poster boy Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam hit the half-century mark in 2014.)
  • Meanwhile, the first of the Millennials — the “echo boomers” whose numbers peaked in 1990 — are in their mid 30s.

Each generation brings a new sensibility to the stages of life, and the relative size and makeup of each group — not to mention its cultural context — gives journalists plenty of opportunity for storytelling. Two examples:

  • Much has been written about the big bump of post-World War II babies marching closer to retirement (someday), Social Security, and the years where health care becomes a major concern. But what about the inevitable? Notice that the number of deaths in the U.S. has ticked up to about 2.7 million a year. Expect that to keep climbing as more Boomers head into the years where death rates rise dramatically. How will 4 million deaths annually affect the funeral home business, the ability to buy a cemetery plot, and the overall industry around end-of-life care?
  • Along with Gen X came the “baby bust,” the years of rapidly declining birth rates that led to all kinds of prognostications about the shrinking of America. That means our workforce now has a relative shortage of thirty- and forty-somethings. Does that mean more opportunity for Millennials to advance in the business world and less pressure for boomers to retire?

These sorts of trends are slow-burning, but they reflect data trends that exert hidden but massive force on our culture, much like the tides. The savvy data analyst keeps an eye on them not just for what they say this year but what they reveal over time.

A Sense of September

The chill this morning — barely 50 degrees when I left the house at 6 a.m. to meet a friend for breakfast — told me for sure what the progressively earlier sunsets have been hinting at for weeks: The season is changing. Before leaving, I pulled my favorite hoodie out of the closet and enjoyed its warmth for the first time since the spring. A familiar, welcome cocoon.

I feel this way each September, embracing the transition from summer to fall more than any other change in season. This, I am sure, has its roots in the school calendar — 13 years of public school and another half-dozen of college conditioned my psyche to understand that Labor Day is summer’s last hurrah before the start of a new term. September has always marked a new time, a beginning again, another chance.

September seems particularly on time this year. If you’re a journalist, you’ve probably heard that my workplace is reorganizing, the result of long-standing trends in its business and in journalism in general. We’re not alone. All of us who ply the trade have spent a decade watching our ranks thin, our business models implode, and our products change in a frenzy of reinvention that takes on the aura of shooting arrows while blindfolded. Journalists of all kinds — print, broadcast, even web — were slow to recognize the oncoming train of an always-connected digital society in which everyone owns the metaphorical printing press. Just as we laughed at our parents who couldn’t set the time on the VCR — “but you just press these buttons!” — the newsroom data nerds and digital prophets, the ones who heard the train whistle years ago and tried to get their brothers and sisters to just open a spreadsheet for goodness sakes, have had their own chuckle, albeit one tinged with melancholy. We knew the day would soon come when digital ignorance would not be bliss.

And yet, it’s September.

My family moved often when I was young. From fourth grade to ninth, I attended six schools in three school districts.

That’s why September, announced with cool air and a display of stars in the crisp early sky, reminds me that seasons do change. For this I am thankful. And soon  — as leaves turn gold and fall to the ground — we’ll remember that some things need to die before they can live again.