“The downward trend in birth rates observed in the last several years is not a flash in the pan,” she told CNA. “Unfortunately, the economic devastation ushered in by COVID-19 is likely to make late 2020 worse, and 2021 worse still.”
Many have speculated that months of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders could result in a mini “baby boom,” and that 2020 figures might show a spike in births towards the end of the year. But, Pakaluk warned, this optimism could prove to be unfounded.
“You'll hear lots of people joke about couples on lockdown with nothing better to do than 'make a baby'. But that's just wishful thinking.”
“Plenty of evidence says that unemployment is one of the best predictors of negative fertility shocks. With new jobless claims approaching a staggering 40 million, there are many couples, sadly, who will choose not to have a baby that they already conceived -abortion- and certainly many more who will postpone a baby they were hoping to have this year or next,” she said.
“For some fraction of those, that postponement will end up being permanent. Expect 2020, but especially 2021, to be far worse than what we see here.”
Several trends continued in the data, suggesting that long term fertility rates will continue to drop. Teenage pregnancies have been in sharp decline for decades, with births among women under 20 dropping a further 5%, and declining by 73% overall since a peak in 1991.
Birthrates among Hispanic women also continued to drop, registering 20% fewer births than 2008 projections anticipated. Hispanic women account for nearly 25% of U.S. births.
Experts have long warned about the wider societal and economic problems associated with declining birth rates, especially below the population replacement rate. Programs like social welfare and subsidized medical care rely on growing populations which can contribute to the care of aging generations.
Commenting on these trends in an interview with CNA last year, Pakaluk said that the problems were obvious.
“We see immediately that it is not socially optimal from any rational social planning perspective because you know you cannot support the generous social programs that we like to think are good for society,” Pakaluk said.
“Things like a decent social security system, MediCare, MedicAid, you just cannot sustain them in the long run with a total fertility rate of 1.7.”
But, she warned, the problems caused by declining births was individual, not just societal.
(Story cotinues below)
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“While the wider societal problems are well known,” Pakaluk said, “what is fascinating is that is seems that it isn’t individually optimal either.”
“What we do know, which is not often raised in media coverage, is that over the last several decades every survey in a Western country that asks women to describe their ideal family size – every single one everywhere – gives you a number about one child more than women end up having.”
Pakaluk said that the connection between parenthood and individual happiness is well known but rarely considered in relation to the fertility gap.
“We do know that children are a tremendous source of satisfaction for both men and women and if you take the net effect of [available data] on happiness and wellbeing - even in very controlled studies - we know that children contribute a tremendous amount of happiness.”
“I would certainly say that we need to look at [how] we have the lowest birthrates on record and the highest rates of addiction and depression on record. I’m not ready to say that is causal, but I think we need to think about it,” Pakaluk said.
“We are living in a fascinating paradox. In the post-feminist age of women’s right and control of reproduction they are not getting what it is that they say they want.”