At the start of the COVID epidemic there was plenty of speculation that lock-down would cause a miniature baby-boom. Being locked away with ones partner for long periods, it seemed like a logical conclusion. It was too early to look for data. The Financial Times this week ran a four part series on the “Baby Bust”. They included interesting data on the impact of COVID on the number of births.
Looking across many countries, it is clear that there was a sharp fall in monthly births in late 2020 and early 2021. They compared pandemic months with comparable pre-COVID months. Those babies were conceived 40 weeks earlier. Conception decline coincided with the first few months of the COVID pandemic. In those months this was a unknown disease, death rates were not understood and there was no talk of a vaccine becoming available anytime soon.
Countries ranging from China to France reported their lowest number of monthly births since records began. Italy’s number of births fell below any number since the founding of the country in 1861. The pattern is not totally consistent. Some countries such as Germany showed little drop. Iceland even “outperformed” the pre-COVID months.
The article draws the parallel with the drops in births during other traumatic events. They use examples such as the 1918 Flu epidemic, the Great Depression and the recent Global Financial Crisis. They argue that people do not want to bring children into the world at times of uncertainty. That uncertainty could be driven by concerns about health or the economy.
The Bounce back
Births around the world began to recover in late 2021. Those babies would have been conceived in a very different environment. Vaccines were arriving even though we still had lock-downs in many parts of the world. England and Wales suffered a 5% decline in babies in the 1st Half of 2021 compared to 2019. In the second half of the year they returned to the 2019 level. The US Audit Office reported that not only had the numbers returned to pre-COVID levels but there had been a “bounce-back". People were making up for lost time.
It is now clear that in many countries COVID was a temporary phenomenon when it comes to fertility. The Financial Times claims that this was due the injection of economic support by governments. According to them this reduced the financial and job risks for potential parents. I am less convinced because of the short term nature of the effect. The "bounce-back" came very quickly. There was still huge uncertainty around the progress of jobs and the economy. COVID was a threat to everyone’s health. No one knew in the early days the impact on pregnant mothers and their unborn babies. Was this more important than short or long run job security?
What is Happening in China?
The data from China may be following the same pattern. In 2021 there were only 10.6m babies born. In October 2015, the Chinese Government relaxed the “one child” policy that it had introduced thirty five years earlier. Official data showed the number of new-borns in China briefly increased in 2016 and 2017 to around 17.8m (from 16.6m). The numbers then started a decline. In 2018 they fell to 15.2m births, below the last year of the “one child” policy . It was only 14.6m 2019. The drop to 10.6m is therefore dramatic.
Does it represent an acceleration in the decline or is it too a temporary aberration? China is still fighting COVID. The birth rates by region show that Hubei has dropped the most. This is where COVID started. Is it a lagged effect in a country with a very high numbers of babies anyway? Will births take longer to recover because of the challenge of beating COVID? Is the strategy of extreme isolation impacting long term behaviour?
This is the alternative argument: the “historical footprint”. Wang Feng from the University of California suggests that one child families became the norm between 1980 and 2015. COVID will reinforce it and so the effect will be long term. At the moment Chinese families are having to cope with a 4-2-1 model. A couple having to take care of four of their parents and one child.
Will Policy Remedies for Fertility Work?
The Institute for Family Studies in the USA measures the ”Preferred number of Children”. It does this for different countries around the World. The Financial Times compared these numbers with the latest actual numbers. The results show a clear pattern of couples appearing to aspire to more children than they have. In South Korea, for example, the actual birthrate is now 0.9 babies per female. The aspiration is 1.92. In Spain the aspiration is 2.15 and the actual 1.2. In most countries the aspiration is close to the replacement level. In China aspiration is 1.9 children, Japan 2.01, and the UK 2.2. There seems to be an opportunity to remove the perceived barriers.
In previous Newsletters, I have laid out the economic and social pressures holding back the number of children ( Newsletters #006, #021, #038, #042, #052). Women are certainly having their first child later. Fertility in both sexes is falling faster with age than it every used to (Newsletter #053). Some of this can be due to behaviours such as obesity and smoking. Some is due to the impact of chemicals from plastics affecting our hormone production. In a recent press interview Shanna Swan who wrote “Count Down” said that extrapolating current trends:
“by 2045 we will have a median sperm count of zero”
The UN says that 62% of all countries with sub-replacement level have policies to promote fertility. This includes 66% of all European countries. Those incentives include baby bonuses, family allowances, and parental leave for both parents.
France first offered incentives to families as long ago as 1980. They started offering support for families with three or more children. In 1994 they dropped this to only two children. Allowances have also been given to parents who choose to stop working to raise a child. Tax credits are offered for childcare. Unfortunately throughout this period, fertility in France continued to fall.
There is little evidence, to date, that any governmental policy to promote fertility has worked. Unless Governments can find the correct mix of policies the worlds populations will shrink and age. The 4-2-1 family structure is here to stay.