Story hunting in birth, death data

Note to readers: This post, originally published in 2010, has been updated and recast to reflect U.S. data available as of May 2014.

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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 get all gooey inside when I can add another year to the pile.

In May 2014, for example, the National Center for Health Statistics released data showing the number of births in the U.S. had leveled off after several years of decline. In my mind, a yearly change like that in a longitudinal data set certainly is worth covering.

But sometimes these basic demographics — including Census data — reveal even more when we take a long-term view.

For example, below are the annual number of births and deaths from 1933 to 2013 plotted via the Google Charts API. Hover over the lines for the data:

It’s simple — just two fever lines. But it’s chock full of generational milestones that bear watching:

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

Each generation brings a new sensibility to the stages of life, and the relative size and makeup of each one — 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 (maybe), 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 plateaued at about 2.5 million a year. That won’t last long with Boomers heading into the years where death rates rise dramatically. How will 4 million deaths annually affect the funeral home business, the ability to buy a cemetary 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 thirtysomethings. 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 journalist 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.