Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022


Civilization will crumble unless people have more children. Therefore said Tesla boss Elon Musk last month. Others who are less given to hyperbole are also concerned about demographic trends. Concerns about a “baby bust” worsened last year as the pandemic exacerbated declining birth rates in many countries. But the latest data show a sharper recovery in fertility than many experts have predicted.

Certainly, experts’ early predictions of a reproductive boom while couples were stuck at home during the lock-in were not targeted. Birth rates have dropped dramatically already. In Spain, the number of births has dropped a fifth in December 2020, to the lowest number on record.

No wonder. Covid-19 has created a climate of fear and economic uncertainty. It separated couples and made it harder for singles to connect with each other. In addition, there is a history of declining birth rates after pandemics, recessions and other crises. A decrease in gross domestic product was consequence by a decline in fertility rates in four out of five downturns between 1980 and 2008.

Lex charts showing how the US birth rate dropped during the pandemic and the impact of Spanish flu on birth rates from 1917 to 1920

Such downturns can be extended. In the 1917-’20 Spanish flu, each new wave of the virus brought another downturn in subsequent births. The economic woes of the 1930s ensured that the children of the Great Depression were a very small group.

In some countries, the pandemic is still pushing down births. South Korea recently said its fertility rate, which is already the world’s lowest, is expected to fall even further.

But a recently published UN study reported that short-term declines were followed by a return to pre-pandemic levels and trends in many countries. The downturns were shorter than those of previous crises.

This is likely to reflect economic recovery, thanks in part to government support for laid-off and unemployed workers in many places. The link between US unemployment and the declining birth rate was half as strong as in the 2007-2009 recession, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution. It calculated that a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a 0.5 percentage point decrease in the birth rate.

The impact of the pandemic on fertility cannot be fully assessed until the current generation of young women is past the fertile age. Only then will the number, rather than the timing, of births be clear. But it is already clear that the Covid-induced fertility decline is shorter and shallower than in previous crises.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please give us your opinion on birth rates in the comments section below



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