Story hunting in birth, death data

Tracking the U.S. government’s annual count of births and deaths is one of my little obsessions. I keep annual totals in a spreadsheet and look forward to observing the trends with each new year of data.

This most basic of demographics can tell us much about a nation’s past—and its unfolding future.

For example, the CDC’s provisional 2018 U.S. birth data released in May 2019 showed that births in the U.S. dropped for a fourth year in a row, to the lowest level in 32 years. In a story for The Wall Street Journal, we encapsulated the trend and what demographers point to as likely causes: sharp declines in the teen birth rate, increased use of longer-acting contraceptives, and more women in the workforce delaying childbirth, among others.

It’s also useful, with demographic data (and other topics, such as the economy), to take a long-term view. For example, below are the annual number of births and deaths from 1933 to 2018 plotted via the Google Charts API. Hover for details:

These two fever lines contain several generational milestones worth watching. To me, the most interesting trend is the one developing 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. is showing no signs of a rebound. In fact, the ratio of births to deaths, 1.37 in 2017, is lower than it was in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression.

This trend has demographers sounding alarms and is the sort of story line that invites a deeper analysis. But if we step back and look at the longer-term picture, birth and death data holds even more story lines tied to generational development. Consider:

  • The first baby boomers — those born in 1946 — are turning 73 in 2019. The youngest are firmly in their mid-fifties. This cohort of 70 million-plus is either already retired or looking at doing so within a decade.
  • The Gen Xers that follow have hit middle age, now in their late 30s to early 50s. (Gen X poster boy Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam hit the half-century mark in 2014.)
  • The first of the Millennials — the “echo boomers” whose numbers peaked in 1990 — are in their mid to late 30s.
  • Generation Z, born starting in 1997, are just starting to make their presence known in the workforce.

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.

For example, much has been written about the 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 2.8 million a year. Expect that to climb as Boomers head into the years where death rates rise dramatically. How will 4 million deaths annually affect the industry around end-of-life care, not to mention the business of funeral homes and cemetery plots?

These sorts of trends are slow-burning, but they reflect movements 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.

4 responses to “Story hunting in birth, death data”

  1. Chris Angell says:

    Very insightful; thanks!

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