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COVID Pandemic Accelerated Declining Birth Rates World Wide

June 21, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have accelerated a long-standing trend in declining birth rates across the globe and could have long-lasting consequences, particularly for women, according to a recent panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.

“The decision of whether to have a child or not have a child is obviously intensely personal, but when made in aggregate by millions of couples, it can have huge implications,” said Natascha Braumann, director of Global Government and Public Affairs for Fertility at EMD Serono, the healthcare business of Merck KGaA.

A survey conducted by researchers at EMD Serono, combined with data from the World Bank, Eurobarometer and a Gallup poll from the U.S., suggests that those who are having children are limiting their families to just one or two children. 

While there are many reasons for this, data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicates these reasons are exacerbated during periods of economic decline like the Great Depression and the more recent Great Recession.

Braumann believes the COVID-19 pandemic has been similarly disruptive.

“Weddings were postponed, dating was more difficult, a lot of those markers of relationship maturity have been put on hold, and I suspect we will see the ripple effects of that over the coming years,” she said. 

According to Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau, between 2007 and 2020, the U.S. total birth rate fell from 2.1, the number needed to keep the size of the population stable as older people die, to just 1.6.

“Moving from 2.1 to 1.6 births per woman may not sound like much, but for demographers, that’s a pretty big change in a short period of time,” Mather said. 

Data from the U.S. 2020 Census shows that the U.S. is growing at the slowest pace since the 1930s. The decrease in birth rates and a lower desire to have children can also impact population dynamics and lead to serious implications for economic growth.

One particular area of concern is that a marked decline in births will ultimately lead to a decline in future caregivers just as the bulk of the population enters retirement age.

“The U.S. is expected to face a caregiver shortage, as the number of Americans 65 and older is projected to nearly double by 2060, and at the same time they’re expected to be fewer children to care for them,” Mather said. “Partly because of the declines in fertility, but also because of changing patterns of marriage and cohabitation that could reduce the number of potential caregivers that are available to older adults.”

 However, Mather said one positive aspect of the birth rate decline was the accompaniment of a decline in both the teen birth rate and unintended pregnancies.

“These are really positive developments, and population decline can certainly reduce pressures on the environment, especially if it’s coupled with more sustainable consumption of resources,” he said.

Climate change and natural disasters will continue to impact immigration and birth rates as people continue to move around and migrate under forced conditions. Those living in a desert, for example, and experiencing a water shortage have different population pressures than those living on the coast, based on environmental impacts. 

“The key is not to become too fixated on the over fertility rate, or number of births, but it’s more important that the United States develops policies and strategies that will help ensure that the country is successfully adapting to an aging population,” Mather said.

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