When the COVID pandemic led to widespread economic shutdowns and stay-at-home orders in the spring of 2020, many media outlets and experts speculated that this could lead to a baby boom. But the opposite appears to have happened: in many high-income countries, birth rates have plummeted amid the crisis, a new study shows.
Arnstein Aassve, professor of social and political science at Bocconi University in Italy, and his colleagues studied birth rates in 22 high-income countries, including the US, from 2016 to early 2021. They found that seven of those countries were statistically significant Declines in birth rates in the last months of 2020 and the first months of 2021 compared to the same period in previous years. Hungary, Italy, Spain and Portugal saw some of the largest declines: reductions of 8.5, 9.1, 8.4 and 6.6 percent, respectively. The US saw a 3.8 percent decline, but it was not statistically significant – possibly because the effects of the pandemic were more prevalent in the country and the study only had US data through December 2020, Aassve says. The results were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
Birth rates fluctuate seasonally within a year, and many of the countries in the study had seen rates decline for years before the pandemic. But the declines that began nine months after the World Health Organization declared a health emergency on January 30, 2020, were even more drastic. “We are very confident that the effects for these countries are real,” says Aassve. “Even if they maybe had a slight downward trend [before], we’re pretty sure the pandemic had an impact.
The uncertainty associated with a global pandemic and its impact on the economic situation of families are the most likely reasons for these trends, Aassve suspects. “People don’t really understand what the disease is – it’s new to them … A lot of people will see their job prospects deteriorate, which is important to their income,” he says. “You can’t do without the birth entirely, but at least postpone it until you see that the times are a little better.”
The results are not surprising to many demographers, who have seen similar declines following catastrophic events like the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 pandemic flu. But they are still remarkable.
“We definitely have a decline in birth rates because of that [COVID] Pandemic due to the history of disasters in general, “says Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study. “How it would turn out was unclear, so it’s really interesting and important that we get those results now.”
Cohen’s own research, detailed in a recently-yet-peer-reviewed preprint study, showed Florida and Ohio saw birth rates decline during the pandemic. He found steeper drop-offs in counties that had higher numbers of COVID cases and lower mobility. Cohen notes that the PNAS Study covers US data through December 2020 and more recent numbers show a larger decrease.
It remains to be seen whether high-income countries will see a significant recovery in birth rates in the months and years ahead. Early data suggests a recovery in births from pregnancies that began in June 2020, following the first wave of COVID infections in countries hit hard in spring 2020. But subsequent waves may have resulted in more people delaying the birth of children.
The long-term effects of people having fewer babies during the pandemic are speculation, Aassve says. The phenomenon could potentially lead to an economic boom like the Roaring Twenties after the 1918 flu pandemic. Or it could lead to a two-step recovery where some families hit hard by the COVID pandemic and its economic impact may have fewer children, while others who have been less affected or even benefited from it are more likely to do so. A third possibility is that the declines will be a spike in demographic terms, with little discernible impact on the population as a whole.
Some countries in the new study, including several Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and South Korea, saw slightly positive trends in birth rates, but these were not statistically significant. While it is too early to interpret these data, one can speculate that stronger social safety nets may have offset some of the uncertainty associated with having children during the pandemic.
The researchers included only high-income countries in their analysis due to the quality of the data available. Wealthier countries also have more access to contraception, and women in them are more likely to have more options and leeway.