Why would you have kids in a coronavirus-affected world?
When the coronavirus struck us we were living already in ‘interesting times’ regarding how people planned and structured their family lives, as described in Part I of this post. So, many of you may be asking yourselves what the implications on fertility from this pandemic could be. Is fertility going to increase or decrease during and after the coronavirus pandemic? Will the pandemic affect low or high fertility countries more? In order to answer these questions, let’s have a look at what was happening before we woke up one day and discovered that the arrival of COVID-19 was not just a bad dream.
Couples are increasingly making decisions about having or not having kids based on factors such as self-accomplishment, personal career development, increasing costs of education for children. Even in some cases, beauty and body fitness are mentioned as reasons weighed in the decision of having kids and when to do so. Should we expect that there will always be at least some women and couples interested in having kids? I remember that when we developed population projections, an area in which I worked some time ago, the lower limit value of the fertility in the future was established by definition at 2.1 children. I think us demographers were naïve. Why were we so naïve? Maybe because it was convenient. It was obvious that we could not establish that people will have a pre-determined number of kids. Actual trends now show that if there is a lower limit in the total fertility rate (TFR), this limit is zero. My friend and colleague Paulo Campanario, a Brazilian demographer and philosopher, when studying with me at the University of Montreal pursued the thesis that in a developed capitalist society, there were only emotional reasons, no economic reasons, to have children. In this context, fertility will approach zero. Campanario’s premise may have some validity as evidenced by South Korea’s fertility rate of 0.9 children per woman in 2019.
I interviewed my colleague Tomas Sobotka, who is one of the most recognized researchers in the world in the area of low fertility and policy responses and who recently completed a report for the United Nations Population Fund that provides one of the best overviews of this topic. “The future moves toward sub-replacement fertility”, he said. It is uncertain how low fertility can go and how long it will take to attain sub-replacement. But he thinks that although it is difficult to predict, the current trends point toward a more generalized regime of low and very low fertility everywhere.
But the craziness of today’s moment is that there are two demographic extremes happening at the same time, each one leading to different types of policies and expected outcomes. On one hand, there are countries dealing with high fertility, which are implementing policies that will reduce their fertility. The rationale for such policies is not to attain a demographic target of fertility, even if this is one of the outcomes, but to provide women with access to modern contraceptive methods that can help them to implement their reproductive choices and improve their health and that of their children. On the other hand, there are governments in countries with low and very low fertility trying to find the magic bullet that can help them to fix or to adjust people’s behaviors to drive a fertility increase to a level that does not jeopardize the country’s political and economic interests and demographic survival. What is clear is that an increasing number of governments (55 in 2015) are informing the United Nations that they intend to raise their fertility levels. These intentions are framed in the context of family policies that usually include several measures aimed to eliminate gender inequalities, to improve work-family balance (part-time work, reduced working hours for women, childcare provision, and parental leave), baby bonuses and other cash incentives.
The one-million-dollar question is: which recommendations can be given to a country that is living this fertility drought and tries to implement policies to revert the situation? In the words of Tomas Sobotka, based on their intentions and desires, couples, women, and men must decide which plans they want to establish for their lives. “The Government must not tell people how many kids to have, but to create adequate conditions for families of all social groups”. But the question is: which are these conditions?
In a context of very low fertility, nobody has identified for sure the best way to convince people to have (more) kids. Some policies can work in some contexts and not necessarily in others. Sobotka summarizes what we know about the different policies and their impact in increasing or not the fertility rates. His conclusions are both provocative and challenging. First, short-term policies, particularly when they are changing because of political interests at the moment, do not work and can even have negative and detrimental effects. Second, explicit fertility policies may not work, because they don’t provide solutions to structural factors that underline decisions to marry and have children, such as labor market rigidities, gender norms, increasing educational expenses. Third, policies must be reliable, medium and long-term oriented, comprehensive, targeted for the specific population groups, predictable, respectful and non-coercive. It seems like a titanic task, particularly taking into account the social and political instability that some low fertility countries are experiencing now and the fact that countries are just now learning by doing.
As the newer generations of women are becoming highly educated, governments cannot expect that they will necessarily have the children required to put the country above the fertility replacement level. Women have been making amazing progress in having the same or even higher level of education than men, which is already a reality in many countries. Women want to have better options, options in the labor market, political participation and equality. They have fought for it for decades. When talking to my colleague Tomas Sobotka, he told me “Women want to have a family, but they don’t want to stay home, they want to have a job, a career. There must be conditions created that allow them to have kids and develop their career. One of the key policies is subsidized public childcare”.
What about depopulation? Many countries of Western Europe are an interesting case of having fertility below replacement but not having necessarily a population decrease. Let’s take the case of Austria, whose population continues increasing in spite of sub-replacement fertility. Obviously, the key in this case is immigration. Sobotka thinks that “Other countries don’t need to be afraid. Their population can be sustained even if they have a fertility lower than 2.1 but higher than 1.6, provided they have a good stream of migrants”. But, are countries experiencing negative population growth ready to compensate via migration? The reality is that they have no other choice. Women will have less kids. In spite of anti-migration rhetoric, most European countries, as is the case for Austria, are accepting more and more migrants, and this measure is compensating for the lack of births. That’s not the case for Asian countries where immigration is not so welcomed, although Japan seems to be opening more and more for labor migrants.
Good news is that in most countries with fertility below replacement women tend to say that they would like to have more children than the number they have. But it is also true that as my colleague and friend Ralph Hakkert says “While policymakers may think of ways to raise birth rates in order to attend to perceived social and economic priorities, ultimately fertility decisions are taken by individual families, based on the cost of raising a child and the inherent satisfaction of having children, compared to other potential uses of time and income”. We come back to the same message always.
At the end, couples decide, women decide. But also, the decision is made in a concrete context and can be affected by the particular situation of women, including whether they are in a union and if their partners also want kids. Independently of the effectiveness of some of the policies implemented, a factor that is a common denominator in most countries is that no matter how much Governments invest in policies and interventions supposed to produce an increase in fertility, an equal distribution of responsibilities between women and men within the household is a condition sine qua non for making a family policy effective in convincing women to have kids.
The main conclusion of this post is something I hope will provide another rationale to my friend Katja Iversen, President and CEO of Women Deliver in her continuous fight for gender equity. Sustained and positive changes regarding gender roles in the society, together in particular with an equal distribution of responsibilities between men and women within the household, will create conditions that will improve women’s capacity to implement their fertility choices, decreasing the risk that the current fertility drought becomes as critical as in Gilead, this imaginary society in the Hulu Series The Handmaid’s tales mentioned in the Part I of this post. But the risk continues to exist. Maybe we should wait for what a post-millennial generation can bring and see if they will bring another life perspective based on a re-engineering of social and gender relationships that make people want to have kids again.
How the coronavirus can change the expected future
The coronavirus pandemic has appeared and is already causing the biggest sanitary, economic and social disruption of modern times. People lives are being altered. Social mechanisms of engagement and interactions are compromised and the economic stability of so many people in the world is at risk of collapse. So, we come back to the initial questions of this post. What could be the implications of this pandemic on fertility? Is fertility going to increase or decrease during and after the pandemic?
It is difficult to predict as we don’t know yet where this is leading us. But based on what has happened during and after similar events in the past, we can consider as possible the following scenarios. The first effect will be a contraction (reduction) of fertility motivated by a postponement of marriages and births, including those planned with assisted fertility. This will be caused not only by the direct adverse health effects of the pandemic and the more limited access to maternity health care but more importantly by income instability generated by the pandemic that some have already qualified as a recession. The longer the duration of the pandemic and the broader its economic effects, the stronger the decline of fertility during and immediately after the pandemic. In countries were contraception is widely available, an increase in fertility can be expected once the worst of the pandemic ends, the economic situation starts improving and the hopes of a better control of infection and treatment concretizes. Marriage and births postponed during the crisis will then take place. However, in developing countries, the coronavirus crisis can reduce the access to modern contraceptives methods due to a decline of the international aid and ruptures on the supply chain of contraceptives. In this situation, an increase in unwanted fertility will be probably observed until the situation improves.
However, we don’t know today how the scenarios mentioned above will play out. Beyond the current situation, we may consider that coronavirus is the first global pandemic in the era of the Internet and real-time communication, and it is as of yet unknown which new cultural changes this pandemic will bring and how humankind will deal with its future, including how interested we will be in having (more) kids.
 Tomas Sobotka leads the VID Research Group on Comparative European Demography at The Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. http://www.wittgensteincentre.org/en/staff/member/sobotka.htm
 Hakkert, R. (2019). Population Policies in Low-fertility contexts: a review of Practices and Options. UNFPA, 2019 (unpublished).