Civilization will collapse unless people have more children. So speak Tesla boss Elon Musk last month. Others, less exaggerated, are also worried about demographic trends. Concerns about “child busts” increased last year, as the pandemic exacerbated falling birth rates in many countries. However, the latest data shows that fertility rebounded stronger than many experts had predicted.
To be sure, experts’ initial forecast of a fertility boom as couples stuck at home during the lockdown fell short of the target. Birth rates fell sharply in many countries. In Spain, the number of births has decreased one over five in December 2020, with the lowest number on record.
No wonder. Covid-19 has created a climate of fear and economic insecurity. It separates couples and makes it harder for singles to match. Furthermore, there is a history of declining birth rates following pandemics, recessions, and other crises. The decline in gross domestic product was follow Birth rates fell in four out of five recessions from 1980 to 2008.
Such recessions could be protracted. During the Spanish flu of 1917-20, each new wave of the virus brought another downturn in subsequent births. The economic hardship of the 1930s ensured that the children of the Great Depression were a very small group.
In some countries, the pandemic is still pushing birth numbers down. South Korea recently said its birth rate, already the lowest in the world, is expected to fall even further.
But a recently published United Nations study report that the short-term decline has been followed by a reversal in pre-pandemic levels and trends in many countries. Recessions have proven to be shorter-lived than previous crises.
That is likely to reflect an economic recovery, thanks in part to government support for unemployed and out-of-work workers in many places. The link between the unemployment rate in the US and the falling birth rate is half as strong as during the 2007-2009 recession, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution. It calculates 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 appreciated until the current generation of young women is past childbearing age. Only then will the number, not the time, become clear. But it is clear that the reproductive recession caused by Covid is shorter and shallower than previous crises.
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