Commentary: The coronavirus pandemic could lead to fewer births, but not for the reason you think

  • An image from an electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (NIAID-RML/Zuma Press/TNS)

One of the most famous and influential scholarly works of all time is “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” published in 1798 by English economist Thomas Robert Malthus. His warning that population would increase far faster than food production in normal circumstances — leading to mass poverty and degradation — helped pave the way for eugenics, population control, birth control, environmentalism and more. It also inspired Charles Darwin’s research into evolution, deeply influenced sociology and created, more or less, the field of demographics.

But 222 years later, outside of the continent of Africa, Malthus’ warning no longer seems relevant. The vast increase in global wealth over the last 70 years has sharply reduced food shortages.

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And in most wealthy nations, women aren’t having the average of 2.1 children that would keep population from declining independent of immigration. There are a lot of reasons why fewer children are being born, including some people don’t want kids, some people are waiting longer to start families or they value their independence, contraception is readily available, electronic devices have emerged as substitutes for interpersonal relationships and some people just aren’t looking for such relationships.

The implications are immense. Some are positive. A smaller population means less global warming and more available housing. In depopulated towns in rural Japan, the government has taken to giving away homes.

But some of the implications are scary — starting with the viability of government pensions, Social Security and Medicare and large swaths of the economy (especially health care) — when there are nearly as many retirees as workers.

Now the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has already caused more than a quarter-million deaths around the world, could make this looming economic problem much worse — by contributing to fewer babies being born.

The idea that having a quarantine would lead to more sex has been floated glibly on social media, but there is little evidence to back it up. Claims that a massive power outage in the Northeast in 1965 led to a baby boom nine months later have been thoroughly debunked. During recent weeks of this pandemic, posts on sites such as Wired and Slate are actively discouraging hookups even though dating app use seems to be holding steady. And the admonition for social distancing of at least 6 feet to keep from spreading the virus makes intimacy, especially with strangers or if you’re immuno-compromised, seem dangerous.

But the biggest reason to assume the pandemic will lower the birth rate around the world is not fears about the risk of transmitting the coronavirus through sex. It’s economic insecurity. The U.S. fertility rate plunged in the 1930s during the Great Depression and in the 1970s when extreme inflation fueled a recession and widespread public fear.

More recently, during the Great Recession, nearly 2.3 million fewer babies were born in the United States from 2008 to 2013 than would have been born with previous fertility rates, according to a 2014 University of New Hampshire study. The same study noted that for years after the Great Depression, birth rates did not increase even as economic anxieties decreased.

The pattern appears to be repeating itself. In November, the federal government said that the U.S. fertility rate continued to decline even after the U.S. economy rebounded from the Great Recession. Last year, the U.S. population grew by the smallest amount in more than a century — since the last pandemic in 1918. Now, with immigration declining in the Trump era, previous assumptions that the U.S. population would grow by 25 million by 2030 seem questionable at best.

Yet 2019 may seem like a fecund year in retrospect. Americans in their 20s who watched their parents being buffeted or worse by the Great Recession have now seen 30 million jobs disappear — often their own or their friends’ — in the U.S. in just six weeks.

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In a world where young people have experienced so much uncertainty and turmoil, having children may seem like a luxury — or a gamble.

Chris Reed is deputy editor of the editorial and opinion section at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email: chris.reedsduniontribune.com. Twitter: chrisreed99