While attributing a bigger share of the decline in the teen birth rate to a crap economy rather than low-rent reality TV shows is obviously less likely to garner New York Times coverage, it also demonstrates how the expressive understanding of culture works.
Individuals—even the disproportionately low-income and low-educated girls who are most likely to have babies as teens—exercise a tremendous amount of agency in deciding when and under what circumstances they became a mother (or a father). This decline in birth rates is in fact a global phenomenon, one well-documented by Jonathan V. Last in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. In every developed economy and even most undeveloped countries, he observes, birth rates have plummeted over the past several decades. It turns out that when women have access to more education and better employment possibilities, they have fewer children and have them later in life.
The rise in legal equality and generally cheap and readily available birth control plays a major role too. Men are more careful too, for a wide variety of reasons. Declines in birth rates, Last writes, are “the result of an enormous, interconnected web of factors that constitute something like the entire framework of modern life.” The ultimate upbeat message is that, relative to the past, even the poorest women among us have more choices than ever before. That’s why they are choosing to have fewer kids—not because they finally got their MTV.