Nationally-imposed lockdown measures, leading to increased time indoors across the globe, led to early speculation that the Covid-19 pandemic could produce a much-needed boom in birth rates in many economically advanced, yet demographically challenged countries. However, a report published in early 2021 by the Brookings Institute contradicts early well-wishers with a sobering realisation: this pandemic is a baby bust.
Alarmingly, the report highlights that unlike past health and economic crises or wars, the Covid-19 pandemic’s baby bust will have unprecedented longevity. Evidence suggests that not only has the Covid-19 worsened existing downward trends in birth rates but it has also affected the few developed countries with healthy ones.
Births in Italy, measured in December 2020, decreased 21.6% year-on-year, a meaningful drop in a decade-long downward trend. Similarly, Japan experienced a 9.3% drop in birth-rates, measured year-on-year. While the pandemic may have worsened birth-rates for the aforementioned countries, the data suggests that these trends were downward-spiralling to begin with and are projected to endure as the pandemic wanes.
The UK’s costly aging demographic used to be mostly offset by the inpouring of young Europeans attracted to the UK by its accessible labour market and academic institutions. Unlike its European counterparts, this allowed the UK to maintain a slower decline over the past few decades, but this has been thrown into uncertainty by closed borders and Brexit. Meanwhile, the impact of Covid-19 on national unemployment levels, postponed pregnancies, fewer unwanted pregnancies and limited access to IVF, have all led to a sharp decrease in birth rates. According to forecasts by PwC, fewer that 570,000 babies are likely to be born this year in the UK, the lowest figure since 1900.
Similarly, the decade of demographic stagnation in the US was mitigated by the influx of younger immigrants and its labour force’s flexible and willing mobility. As a whole, America’s birth rate is still positive—0.32% growth measured in December 2020 as compared year-on-year—yet, modest. Above all, the economic effects of the pandemic on employment almost singlehandedly affected American birth rates. The Brookings Institute research suggested a strong correlation between unemployment and birth rates, positing that 1% increase in unemployment leads to a 1% decrease in aggregate births.
In China, the 2015 abolition of the one-child policy momentarily curbed its rapid and unsustainable population growth. This year, however, evidence suggests that the deaths of many young workers to Covid, coupled with the distrust of maternity support many women face, may discourage young families to have more children, despite being legally allowed to do so. In the long term this might hinder the Chinese government’s plan for economic growth, which relies on a young workforce.
Decreasing birth rates are a result of a concoction of factors: increasing rates of female employment, heavier tax levers to offset the costs of aging populations, stagnant childrearing support, are only a few.
If you consider Covid-19 uncertainty, gender-pay gaps, unpaid or short maternity leave, and inadequate child-rearing support options, the question between building a career and childbearing starts to look more and more like Sophie’s Choice.