Let's paint the scene. It's mid-March of 2020 in the United States; we are quickly becoming confronted by the fact that our life is not impervious to the virus that was, just shortly before, an ocean away. COVID-19, at this point, was present in every single of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 United territories. The World Health Organization declared the world to be experiencing a global pandemic. Despite initial (read: misguided) projections that the virus was "totally under control" from the U.S. administration at the time, the U.S. was unequivocally quite astray from being totally under control. Cases were increasing rapidly across the country. To mitigate the transmission of COVID, our lives suddenly became categorized into "essential" or "non-essential" binaries. Businesses shut down. Universities sent students home. People were just hearing about the software “Zoom.” For our non-essential workers, they had a crash course on how to be an effective remote worker.
Consequently, many of us were left constrained to the parameters of our homes if we were fortunate enough to possess such a thing. As a result, many of us were left with a surprising amount of free time at home. For those with significant others, it gave us a lot of time to... take walks around the neighborhood! But, let's face it, we're all adults- no need for colloquialisms- sex! Lots of newly found and semi-unstructured time that could be spent for sex.
Individuals were not slow on taking to hypothesizing what this newfound time for sex would lead to. People were anticipating that nine months after the start of widespread lockdowns, there would be a whole lot of little COVID babies! Thus, the concept of the COVID baby boom came to be. Social media did not disappoint. With anticipation of future pandemic root babies, Tik-Tok took to creating imagined future teacher role calls, riddled with names like "Charmin," "Corona," and "Tina" - short for quarantine. Funny enough, these are all examples of actual names parents named their children due to their baby's pandemic roots.
Nevertheless, we are now certainly past the nine-month mark of the early quarantine period; and shockingly, the results show that COVID-19 not only did not stir a baby boom, it actually did the opposite, catalyzing what researchers refer to as a “baby bust” in certain high-income countries. By baby bust, we refer to the phenomenon of a sharp decrease in the birth rate. To illustrate, a study conducted by Bocconi University in Italy showed that seven high-income countries showed statistically significant evidence for COVID playing an influence in decreased birth rates.
These countries include Hungary, with an 8.5% decrease; Italy, with a 9.1% decrease; Spain, 8.4% decrease; and Portugal, 6.6% decrease. In addition, the study notes that the United States experienced a birth decrease of 3.8%- but one that is not statistically significant. However, the study notes that this finding may be lower than the actual decrease due to the mixed impact the pandemic had across the U.S. and the lack of recent data for the U.S.
So, what gives? What the heck were couples doing with all that free time, then? People stuck at home very well may have been having sex, but they certainly were having far less sex aimed at making little Coronas and Tinas. This decreased desire for kids may have been expected though- in fact, while pop culture made fun of the anticipated baby boom, researchers hypothesized that this very thing would happen. For one, high-income nations have been experiencing decreases in birth rates since 2007. High-income nations empirically have experienced low Total Fertility rates (TFR). The World Bank defines TFR as "the number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children in accordance with current age-specific fertility rates." As of 2019, for women in high-income countries, TFR is an average of 1.5 babies. Women in high-income countries are more likely to have a lower TFR for many reasons, but ultimately they are in a better position for non-domestic advancement opportunities.
For one, women in these countries typically have a higher likelihood of education and a professional role outside the home. Thus, in these countries, you will see that women have less children and have them later in their lives. In addition, there are better family planning education opportunities and access to healthcare that affords these women information about their bodies and, more specifically, their reproductive health. As a result, women can make informed decisions about having children, or contrarily, about contraception to avoid having children. So, decreasing birth rates in high-income countries were on trend regardless of the pandemic, as they have been in for quite some time. But, the pandemic had its own influence, and it all comes down to- que the ABBA hit song- "Money, Money, Money."
The ambiguous trajectory of the virus left many fearful of what it would implicate for their financial well-being. With businesses shut down, unemployment inevitably skyrocketed. People were experiencing increased job and housing insecurity. At the beginning of the pandemic, so many questions about the future remained unclear. Remember, this was when a vaccine was nowhere in sight; we were shifting from one month to the next, with the only sure thing in the world being constant uncertainty. These economic fears, paired along with the big question mark that was the future, discouraged people from having children or at the very least deterred them until things began to look a little clearer and more optimistic.
Researchers were not surprised. Baby busts tend to follow periods of historical disasters. Remember the pandemic of 1918? Well, sure enough, there was a baby bust there. Remember the recession of 2008? Baby bust again. In times of uncertainty, people often feel deterred from embarking on the parenthood journey. However, as we emerge from the pandemic (at a sometimes seemingly glacial pace), some research speculates that the tide may turn, given that potential trying parents have a better scope of the virus than when it first rummaged through the world.
Given our better understanding of the virus and increasing vaccination capacity, we are slowly gravitating towards a new “normal,” and with it, couples may be approaching the perfect time to try for a baby. For one, families trying to conceive with the help of fertility clinics or IVF were left at a halt when fertility clinics across the country closed for months at the onset of the pandemic. Now, fertility clinics are welcoming trying parents who patiently waited through the closures. In addition, according to a September 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment is down to 4.8%, which is a considerable reduction from the high rate (peaking at 14.8%) during the February-April 2020 recession. Jobs across hospitality and leisure, professional and business services, and transportation experienced notable gains.
Not too long ago, society seemed devoid of hope and optimism, which perfectly explains why people may have been deterred from starting their families. While there is still a fair amount to accomplish as a nation, we are leaps and bounds ahead of the early days of the pandemic, engulfed in uncertainty and fear. There is a better economy. There is a breadth of vaccine availability, with children’s vaccination clearance on its way. There is a more profound understanding every day of something that was once so unknown, so mysterious. Above all of these, there is hope and confidence that tomorrow will invariably be better than the start of the pandemic. While there may have been a baby bust, parents are gaining their confidence as they see the world makes its long-anticipated recovery.