The day we went into lockdown seems such a long time ago now. We remember when we did, and here in our office we had so many suggestions for stories coming in. Right at the top of the list, was an expected ‘Baby Boom’ right across South Wales. We’d be together with our loved one 24/7, TV would get a little tedious so the inevitable nudge, nudge, wink, wink scenario would kick in. Seemingly it was going to a busy lockdown for us and then a full on 9 months as we waited for the consequence of our actions to manifest.
As if our NHS hasn’t been stretched to the limits already, we feared maternity wards would be busy too. In fact at the time Nadine Dorries, the Minister responsible for maternity services, tweeted
“How busy we are going to be, nine months from now”.
As journalists, you learn to take these forecasts with a pinch of salt after time, but let’s be honest, trapped in our home, with someone very special, it seemed obvious what would happen. In point of fact, it is just the opposite. Sex was almost banned from our households, it’s nigh on impossible when we’re quarantined with hyperactive children running around. But also, we historically have fewer babies in times of recession and an uncertain financial future. So as romantic as the notion appears, South Wales effectively went into a baby lockdown too.
We’ve done a bit of research this weekend and spoken to experts across Europe and it’s not just here where the ‘no nookie’ policy applies. Italian academics support our theory The authors surveyed under-35s in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and here on their fertility plans. Far from seeing a baby boom, it looks like we’re set for baby bust as plans are delayed or abandoned altogether for children in all five of these countries.
Lockdown has done many things, but it appears that any romantic interlude is not one of them.
Francesca Luppi, Bruno Arpino,and Alessandro Rosina found that the effect of the pandemic on fertility is negative across Europe. One of the consequences of this most severe health and economic crisis of the last century, is a real decline in fertility rates. So it is not surprising that the first empirical evidence available does not support the possibility of a lockdown baby boom.
Their survey took place between the last week of March and the first week of April in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and UK. According to the data, the impact of the health and economy on fertility plans differs across countries, but it is always strong and negative.
In France and Germany, more than 50% of the sample are postponing their fertility plans, in contrast to more than 30% who are not. In Spain, people are more prone to postpone (about 50%) or abandon (29%) their decision to have a child, instead of still planning. In the UK, the proportion of still-planners is lower (23%) compared to that in France and Germany, but those who are postponing their plans to have a child outnumber those in Spain (58%); a lower proportion have abandoned such plans altogether (19%). Finally, in Italy the prevalence of abandoners is substantially higher than in the other countries (about 37%), with an average proportion of still-planners.
The huge proportion of people postponing or abandoning their fertility plans at least for 2020, and in some cases indefinitely, seems to be driven by country-specific factors, which can exacerbate or reduce the negative effect of the economic crisis. This interpretation is suggested by the fact that some individual socio-demographic characteristics (such as age, education, living in regions with high prevalence of COVID-19 cases) do not show similar paths of association with fertility plans across countries.
Instead, countries in which young people are now more prone to abandon their fertility plans are the ones where fertility was already very low (i.e. Italy and Spain), compared to the countries where fertility was much higher and fertility plans today seem to be more protected. In the latter case, a higher proportion of people are still planning to have a child this year or they are postponing instead of abandoning their fertility plans. This suggests that the same drivers of previous fertility trends may explain the different impact of the pandemic on current intentions.
Fertility rates in Europe were already a concern in most countries they studied: they were declining long before the pandemic. Moreover, the negative consequences of today’s crisis on fertility add up to the effect of the Great Recession, as both insist on the same generation (i.e. those who today are in their 30s). For this reason, policy efforts for reversing fertility trends are now urgent and must be prompt. Supporting young people, and women in particular, through employment is necessary to strengthen the economic recovery of the countries most affected by the health emergency, to reduce the risk of poverty among young families, and consequently to support fertility choices.
A more balanced sharing of caring tasks should be promoted, to relieve women of their greater family workload. Making flexible working available and accessible may help meet different paid work and family needs. Meanwhile, women’s empowerment and gender equality in paid and unpaid work is needed: to achieve that, governments should improve parental – and in particular father’s – leaves system and childcare services, especially those for infants, which would support a better conciliation of family and work tasks within couples.
If you’d like to find out more about some of these issues, which affect us all, let us direct you to THE RESOLUTION FOUNDATION, an independent think-tank focused on improving living standards for those on low to middle incomes. They work across a wide range of economic and social policy, combining their core purpose with a commitment to analytical rigour. RESOLUTION