Story hunting in birth, death data

Note to readers: This post, originally published in 2010, has been updated and recast to reflect preliminary 2014 U.S. birth data available as of June 2015.

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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 2014 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 hit 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.

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

  1. Chris Angell says:

    Very insightful; thanks!

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