Birth Rate Decline in the West Is Accelerating

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Originally appeared at: Ad Orientem

During the past year, living in the shadow of Covid, I have been completing a book on the big global trends in population. This forced me to ask – what effect will the pandemic have on birth rates? There are countless factors to consider.

On the one hand, with more time at home and fewer distractions, we might expect there to be a baby boom. On the other, with couples under each other’s feet from dawn to dusk, sexual attraction may be waning. Delayed weddings, a lack of dating opportunities and a shortage of contraception in the developing world will all be taking their toll in various ways, too.

Then there is the fear factor. With the pandemic raging, women don’t necessarily want to get into a situation in which they will end up in a hospital, where the chance of picking up an infection is high. We now know that a woman of child-bearing age is unlikely to get seriously ill from Covid, and the chance of her passing on any infection to a foetus is probably zero – but that was not clear at the start of the pandemic and might have had the effect of putting some couples off procreation. Economic uncertainty and job insecurity compound the fear.

Overall, in more developed countries like Britain, the data shows that the net impact of these various factors has been a sharp drop in birth rates. Surveys of couples during the early days of the pandemic suggested that many were abandoning plans to start or grow a family, both in the short term and permanently. Meanwhile, early data suggests that the number of children born in the US this year will fall by at least half a million. In continental Europe, the picture is worse: in France, it looks like births are down 13 per cent, in Italy and Spain, 20 per cent.

If this were just a short-term dip, the overall economic impact would be limited. But it isn’t short term. Before anyone had heard of Covid, births were depressed across the developed world. Fertility rates in North America and Japan have been below replacement level for decades, and sinking. Even the better performers among the rich countries – the US, the UK, France and Scandinavia – were already set for steady population decline, mitigated only by ever higher levels of immigration. And small family syndrome is catching. The end of the One Child Policy has done little or nothing to increase childbearing in China; an increasingly educated and urban population, focused on material advancement and now long accustomed to small family size, has no interest in taking up the increased rations in family size now permitted to them by the Communist Party.

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