The 2020s: A brand-new decade. What some thought would be a baby boom now appears to be a baby bust. Birth rates in the U.S. and abroad have declined after a year of the coronavirus pandemic, and health departments are warning that the data reflects a larger trend in millennial and Gen-Z behavior.
A recent report from the Brookings Institution predicts half a million fewer babies will be born in 2021, reflecting a 13% decline from 2019. Given historical precedence, such a drastic change is partially to be expected, as past pandemics like the 1918 Spanish Flu revealed similar declines in birth rates.
What’s different about the so-called “COVID-19 baby bust” is that it deepens a trend that was already building. Even before the pandemic, birth rates in the U.S. were on a slump, with 2018 showing the fewest American births since the 1980s.
2020: The Year of Never-Ending Anxiety
It’s safe to assume that most people have suffered an increase in anxiety over the past calendar year. There has been no shortage of things to worry about, and that concern has had the effect of delaying would-be mothers’ decisions about having children.
In some cases, young families are putting off the decision of whether to have children indefinitely.
Perhaps worse yet, the stress that COVID-19 has placed on the healthcare industry at-large has led to adverse outcomes for individual mothers. One recent study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology projected a rise in the number of women who die during childbirth as a result of the novel coronavirus.
A shift in health resources may also be impacting deliveries themselves. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced last year it would investigate whether C-sections, birth injuries, and other pregnancy-related complications were on the rise because of the pandemic.
For reference, a birth injury refers to any form of harm that comes to an infant when they are born, ranging from skull fractures to nerve damage. In the United States, severe birth injuries occur in roughly 7 out of 1,000 newborns and can result in cerebral palsy (CP), Erb’s palsy, and a range of other conditions.
While it’s too soon to say whether the pandemic has led directly to an increase in birth injuries, it’s safe to assume that it has not helped.
Birth Rates: From Generation to Generation
Known as the “replacement level,” this term refers to the number of new births required to keep the population the same from generation to generation. In the U.S., the fertility rate has been below the replacement level since 1971, reflecting the end of the post-war baby boom.
However, the birth rate has been considerably below replacement level since 2007 — just before the Great Recession.
Instability, tight finances, and mental health are all culprits in the U.S. fertility decline, but it’s important to zoom out and consider how cultural and economic forces may also be shaping decisions made at the family level.
On a larger scale, the trend of fewer babies now points to an age imbalance in the U.S.’s future, where not enough young people are around to care for an increasingly elderly American population. Shifting age dynamics are also likely to force an economic sea change.
Trying to accurately predict those changes may seem like a fool’s errand, but it’s hard to envision a healthy and sustainable fertility rate that is not accompanied by adequate support for new mothers. Without proper healthcare and financial support, young families can hardly be expected to remain stable.
To prevent the kind of ripple effects that economists worry about, it’s crucial that women receive proper care before, during, and after their child’s birth. At the level of the individual, that’s really all one can hope for.