ROME – Angela Di Iorio already wanted to be pregnant with her first baby. Instead, the 36-year-old Italian, who just postponed her wedding for the second time, is beginning to wonder if she should have a child.
“Our plan was always to get married and then start a family,” said Di Iorio, an osteopath from Rome whose fiancé has been out of work for almost a year, since a gym they co-own was forced to close due to measures to stop the spread of Covid-19. “We no longer have the kind of stability that my partner and I worked so hard to achieve. And I’m getting older, ”he said.
One year after the pandemic, early data and surveys point to a baby collapse in many advanced economies from the US to Europe and East Asia, often in addition to existing downward trends in births.
A combination of economic and health crises is prompting many people to delay or abandon their plans to have children. Demographers warn that the drop is unlikely to be temporary, especially if the pandemic and its economic consequences drag on.
“All the evidence points to a sharp decline in fertility rates and the number of births in highly developed countries,” said Tomas Sobotka, a researcher at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna. “The longer this period of uncertainty lasts, the more lifetime effects it will have on the fertility rate.”
A survey conducted by the Italian research group Osservatorio Giovani between late March and early April in the five largest Western European countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom) found that more than two-thirds of respondents who initially planned to have a child in 2020 decided to postpone or abandon plans to conceive during the next year.
Birth rates fell significantly in many countries in December.
Births, change from the previous year
In the US, a survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization, found that a third of women surveyed in late April and early May wanted to delay childbearing or have fewer children due to the pandemic.
The Brookings Institution estimated in December that 300,000 fewer babies would be born in the US as a result of the pandemic in 2021 compared to last year. That estimate is based on survey evidence and historical experience that a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate reduces the birth rate by about 1%.
For many countries, detailed data on births are still months away at the end of 2020. Where numbers are available, they are not encouraging.
Japan, France and Belgium are among the countries that reported unusually steep drops in births nine months after the pandemic began, compared to a year earlier. In France, the number of births in January fell by 13.5% compared to the previous year, a much steeper drop than the monthly drop of 1.7% recorded on average during the first 10 months of 2020.
In Hungary, one of the few European countries where fertility was increasing before the pandemic, the number of births fell dramatically year on year in December.
The most affected country so far appears to be Italy. The country has one of the oldest populations in the world and has struggled with declining birth rates for years, partly as a result of a sclerotic economy that left the young behind. Then came Covid-19, which hit Italy early and hard.
Births in Italy fell 21.6% in December from the previous year, according to the first estimates from the Italian statistical agency based on data from 15 major cities. That’s a much bigger drop than during the first 10 months of 2020, when births were down 3.3% on average. Overall, in 2020, almost twice as many people died in Italy as those who were born there.
The continuing health emergencies in Italy and Europe and the struggle to recover economically mean that the baby crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon. An additional factor is the long-term impact of people unable to start new relationships during the pandemic.
“The phenomenon of declining births has reached an unprecedented level,” said Maria Vicario, who heads Italy’s national association of midwives. “The problems that we had before are still here. On top of that, weddings are being postponed and more young couples are unemployed. People who lose their jobs can’t think about pregnancy. “
Historically, traumatic events such as pandemics, wars, and economic crises have often resulted in fewer births. Some baby busts are short-lived and followed by bouncing. But the longer a crisis lasts, the greater the chances that potential births will not just be postponed, but never happen, demographers say.
No rebound followed the global financial crisis, for example. America’s birth rate, after reaching its highest level in decades in 2007, plummeted after the 2008 crisis and has gradually declined since then.
The decline in births is bad news for advanced economies. Young people drive innovation, drive growth, and are needed to fund pensions and health systems in aging societies. The shortage of workers makes it difficult to maintain rising productivity.
That is a concern in China. The world’s most populous country was already on the path of declining births due to the lingering effects of its one-child policy, abolished in late 2015 after three decades.
Chinese couples can now have two children, but many who were undecided about having a first or second child postponed their plans in 2020. Surveys have found concerns ranging from uncertain income to fear of contracting the virus during maternity check-ups.
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Liu Xiaoqing, a 32-year-old woman from Beijing, said the pandemic put her against the idea of having a second child, which she and her husband had been considering. The mother of a 2-year-old said, “I can’t even protect one child from a big disaster like this with absolute certainty, let alone two children.”
China has yet to release 2020 population data at the national level, but several local governments have reported double-digit percentage declines in the number of births as of 2019.
Some countries are trying to increase financial support for marriage and pregnancy. In Japan, which has the oldest population of any major nation, it has included more help for fertility treatment since January.
The number of births in Japan fell 9.3% in December from a year earlier, compared with an average of 2.3% during the first 10 months of 2020.
Haruka Matsui stopped going for fertility treatments in December when a new wave of Covid-19 cases arrived in Japan. “It was much more difficult for me to visit the clinic,” said the 34-year-old working mother of a 3-year-old boy. Ms. Matsui, who became naturally pregnant with her first baby, had trouble conceiving for a second before starting treatment in August. “I’ll wait for him a while, since I’m not that old.”
—Miho Inada in Tokyo and Liyan Qi in New York contributed to this article.
Write to Margherita Stancati at [email protected]
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