Not a few cynics prophesied at the start of the coronavirus pandemic that couples locked down at home for weeks on end would produce more babies, if for no other reason than for lack of anything else to do. The even more cynical said that might be true for childless couples, but anyone at home with a brood of children under foot would be sure to use birth control to ensure isre their future sanity.
In fact, most experts predicted a global baby bust, with Israel perhaps being a rare exception. Now, nine months and more after the pandemic first swept across the globe, we have the answer to the boom versus bust debate.
Initial data show that COVID led to a baby bust, and a big one. In the United States, December births – the first of the babies conceived after the onset of COVID – were down 8% year on year
In Israel, which some might thought might turn out to be a procreation outlier, the number of births dropped 6.5% in December from the same time in 2019. The drop for the months of December 2020 and January and February 2021 was 5.4% from a year earlier, meaning that the drop in conception in the first weeks of the pandemic wasn’t a fleeting phenomenon.
What the birth data for the months ahead will tell us is anyone’s guess. Research has shown that some traumas, such as hurricanes, produce a spike in births later. But others, such as famines, tsunamis and earthquakes, have the opposite effect. The correlation between economic downturns and falling birthrates, most recently the Great Recession of 2008, is very strong.
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However, these precedents might be poor guides for predicting the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. As traumas go, COVID is sui generis.
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Unlike natural disasters, it has stretched out for more than a year. Its impact wasn’t limited to its direct victims because even those who were never sickened were forced to lock down and socially distance. Even if that was moderated by massive government spending, COVID’s economic impact was far more severe than your run-of-the-mill earthquake or hurricane or localized epidemic.
Thus, with its special characteristics, people may not respond to COVID the way they have to other kinds of natural and economic disasters. But the bigger question is now that it seems that the coronavirus threat is receding – certainly that is the prevailing feeling vaccinated Israel – will people start having babies again?
It’s not at all clear that will happen. Birthrates in the U.S. and most of the developed world never recovered from the 2008 baby bust. One reason may have been due to lingering economic uncertainty, which among other things manifested itself in the rise of Trump and other political upheaval. If so, COVID may have the same effect because it has left in its wake a high degree of uncertainty about the future of the world economy. A lot of people will find their jobs and skill sets irrelevant in the post-pandemic, digitized world.
Another reason may be climate change, which is leading some adults to question the morality of having children in an overpopulated, deteriorating world. A poll done in 2020 of 4,400 Americans found that a quarter of childless adults say climate change is affecting their reproductive decisions.
Israel could yet prove to be an outlier to the trend of fewer babies, but there is telltale evidence that that may not be the case.
Israeli women have out-babied their Western sisters for a long time, enabling Israel’s population to grow at close to four times the developed-country average.
Why that is makes a nice parlor game. Some say that it’s due to Israel being a more religious society, that Israelis look at having children as a kind of national endeavor and/or that they respond to the trauma of war and terror by creating new life.
On that basis, some thought there might even be a COVID baby boom. But, maybe this is starting to change. Not only does the initial evidence show that that there was no COVID boom, but the number of births in Israel started to turn lower for the first time in many years in 2019, a year before the pandemic. One year doesn’t make a trend, but the decline was very unusual.
A perpetuation of the baby bust is both good and bad news.
The good news is that if Israel’s birth rate doesn’t decline, we face an extraordinarily crowded future of people shoved in high-rise apartment towers and traffic-clogged roads, shrinking open spaces, and immense pressure on water and other natural resources. Combined with climate change, Israel could be a very unhappy place in a few decades' time.
The bad news is for the economy. Without ever-larger influxes of young people into the workforce, there won’t be enough people generating income in the labor market to pay taxes and cover social costs for a growing population of elderly. Unlike most of the West, Israel’s higher fertility rate has spared it the worst of the threat. That may no longer be the case.
Also, high-tech is what makes the Israeli economy what it s, and let's face it, an aging population is sub-optimal for sustaining startup culture. Older people have a harder time with innovation and are less ready to work the grueling hours tech often demands. An aging population isn’t a good fit with startup culture.
These days, more versus fewer babies is a lose-lose proposition. But if we have to choose which loss is more painful, the environmental one is it. If Israelis are among those choosing to have fewer children, no one should be trying to deter them.