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October 16th, 2021

Insight

The COVID baby boom that wasn't

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published March 19, 2021

In 1957, at the peak of the postwar Baby Boom, the US birth rate — the number of babies born for every 1,000 women of childbearing age — reached 122.7. Over the decades that followed, that number fell sharply . By 1990, the birth rate was down to 71.2. In 2010, it was 64.0. In 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control, it had fallen to 58.2 — the lowest US birth rate ever recorded, and less than half of what it had been during the Baby Boom.

Then came COVID-19. Tens of millions of Americans went into lockdown, commutes to work halted, and customary diversions — sports, theater, travel, dining out — became unavailable. With so many couples cooped up at home, some doctors and others speculated, there would be more baby-making going on, leading to a modest surge in births in early 2021.

Wrong.

As CBS News reports, data from 29 state health departments shows a roughly 7.3 percent decline in births in December 2020, nine months after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization:

California, the most populous state, reported a 10.2 percent decline, falling to 32,910 births in December from 36,651 the year prior. In the same time frame, births declined by 30.4 percent in Hawaii.

While birth rates have been falling for nearly a decade, Phil Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, said December's drop was the biggest he's seen since the Baby Boom ended in 1964.

"The scale of this is really large," Cohen said in a telephone interview with CBS News. "Regardless of whether you think it's good or bad to have a lot of children, the fact that we're suddenly having fewer means things are not going well for a lot of people." . . . "We don't know if it's the beginning of a bigger decline over the whole next year or if it's just a shock from March," Cohen said. "But I'm more inclined based on history to think that all of next year is going to be very much down for births."

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The Brookings Institution calculated in December that births in the United States will have fallen by 300,000 from 2019 to 2020. It pointed to a variety of clues that suggest having babies is not uppermost on Americans' minds:

A survey conducted by . . . the Guttmacher Institute reveals that 34 percent of American women have either delayed their plans to have a child or reduced the number of children they expect to have as a result of the pandemic. . . .

Levels of sexual activity have also fallen. In one survey . . . almost half of adults surveyed report a decline in their sex lives. In another . . . those with young children and, particularly, those with school-age children report the largest declines in intercourse.

One way to gauge individual behavior is to examine what they search for in Google; these data are available through Google Trends. A study by Joshua Wilde, Wei Chen, and Sophie Lohmann based on these data supports our prediction of reduced fertility. The authors report that searches for pregnancy-related terms, such as "ClearBlue" (a pregnancy test), "ultrasound," and "morning sickness" have fallen since the pandemic began. Based on the reduced searches for pregnancy-related terms, the authors of that study forecast a reduction of births on the order of 15 percent, an even larger drop than what we forecasted.

As longevity increases, America's (and the world's) population is still increasing. But it's an increased of the aged. The ranks of the elderly are swelling to unprecedented levels, while the number of young people continues to dwindle. The working-age population has already begun shrinking in relation to the population of retirees; soon it will be shrinking in absolute terms.

As more and more adults forgo having children, we are headed for a birth dearth. Contrary to decades of Malthusian fearmongering about overpopulation, the real threat to our society is depopulation. The catastrophes foretold by Malthus and his epigones — some of them in bestsellers like The Population Bomb, which predicted that "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now" — have never come to pass. That is because people are not our greatest liability. They are our greatest asset — the wellspring of every quality on which human advancement depends: ambition, intuition, perseverance, ingenuity, imagination, leadership.

The ongoing baby bust may just be the most ominous reality of 21st-century life. "Never in history," demographer Phillip Longman, a senior editor at the Washington Monthly and policy director for the Open Markets Institute, has observed, "have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation."

To be sure, there are historical reasons that contributed to the drop in birth rates, and some of them are unequivocal blessings. First and foremost is the near-eradication of infant mortality. In the 1850s, wrote Jonathan V. Last in his 2013 book What to Expect When No One's Expecting, one-fifth of white American babies and one-third of black babies died during infancy.

Today, by comparison, the infant mortality rate is minuscule: 5.8 deaths for every 1,000 live births. When children are more likely to survive, parents tend to have fewer children.

Other positive changes put additional downward pressure on fertility rates. Among them: the vast increase in women's education, the availability of modern contraception, and the surge of women into the workforce. Added to those were still other social transformations.

The establishment of Social Security and Medicare, for example, lessened the urgency of adults to have children who would support them in their old age. And the waning of religion in modern America weakened the conviction that getting married and raising a family are moral imperatives.

But most of those changes took place many decades ago. Why do Americans continue to retreat from marriage and children? In the United States today, the fertility rate — the number of children the average woman will bear during her reproductive years — has fallen to an unheard-of 1.78.

To put that in context, it was 3.65 in 1960 and 2.08 in 1980. In the developed world, a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to maintain a stable population — to ensure that there are enough births to offset deaths so that the total population doesn't shrink. Yet in the United States, as in so many other Western countries, the fertility rate is now below replacement level — and falling. What accounts for that? Social Security, the Pill, and women in the workforce help explain what was happening in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, but they shed little light on what is going on in the 21st century.

Perhaps some of the explanation is environmental angst, as I wrote in a 2019 column:

In an Instagram video in February, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that climate change makes it "legitimate" and "moral" for young people to question whether it is "still OK to have children." On HBO's "Real Time,'' Bill Maher extolled millennials "for doing something right": having fewer children. "I can't think of a better gift to our planet than pumping out fewer humans to destroy it," he said to cheers and applause.

Hundreds of women have joined Birthstrike, a group for those who have decided "not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis." Those are just a few examples of the trend; there is no shortage of others.

The conservative antipoverty activist Star Parker suggests another reason.

In a 2019 Pew Research survey, 16 percent said having children is essential for a man to have a fulfilling life and 22 percent said it is essential for a woman to have a fulfilling life.

In the same survey, 57 percent said that "having a job or a career they enjoy" is essential for a man to have a fulfilling life. Forty-six percent said "having a job or career they enjoy" is essential for a woman to have a fulfilling life.

Yet when asked whether getting married and raising a family are indispensable to having a fulfilling life, far fewer respondents said yes: Just 16 percent thought marriage was essential for men to have a meaningful life, and only 17 percent said it was essential for women.

"Thinking that your job is three times more important than bringing new life into the world," remarks Parker, "is not a sign of a healthy culture with a healthy soul."

Human beings and their motives are complicated. There is plainly no single overriding factor that explains our descent into depopulation. It should go without saying that Americans are perfectly free to delay getting married or having children, or to decide that they want no part of the expense, commitment, and restrictions of parenthood. We are not living in Margaret Atwood's Gilead . Individual men and women who choose not to have kids are exercising a reproductive liberty that most of us regard as inviolable.


Yet that doesn't mean we're obliged to close our eyes to the aggregate impact of those individual choices. A society that ceases to "be fruitful and multiply" is a society that sows the seeds of its own decay. To opt out of having children is to opt out of the most meaningful of all investments in the future — and to thereby make it more likely that America's best days are not to come.

America's persistently sinking birth and fertility rates are flashing, glaring warning lights of a coming demographic crisis. Of course government cannot make people have babies. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't encourage parenthood , or remind ourselves how important babies are to American success, enterprise, and optimism. America's children are far and away its most valuable asset — and it's an asset that is being depleted at an alarming rate.

Life with kids is undoubtedly a challenge. But as we are on the verge of finding out, life without them will be infinitely more challenging. If you're alarmed by the state of the world, you should consider bringing more children into it. For whenever mothers and fathers bring children into a world where things have gone horribly wrong, they improve the odds that there will be someone to help set things right.

With more babies comes more of the ultimate resource for fixing the world's problems: human intelligence, imagination, grit, and love.

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