The COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of life for more than a year: the way we work, go to school, socialize, find romantic partners, and even start or grow our families.
So how is the pandemic impacting birth rates — and teen birth rates — in the United States? The short answer is that we don’t completely know yet, but we can make some educated guesses.
At first glance, we might expect a big year for pandemic baby-making from teens and adults alike. Among adult couples, all of that social distancing could lead to more time together. Among teens, school closures could mean less adult supervision. And for both teens and adults, the pandemic could have hurt access to health care, including contraception.
But all of the evidence is pointing the other direction. For both teens and adults, it seems likely that birth rates following the pandemic will decrease — maybe by a lot. Let’s take a look at why.
1. Preliminary data are pointing that way
Demographers have to wait a while for data around birth rates. A pregnancy lasts 9 months, give or take, and then tack onto that another 5 months or so for the first vital statistics data to trickle in. Last week, we saw some of the first hard evidence about the direction of birth rates, with the CDC’s release of preliminary 2020 birth data. 2020 births are down by 4% (from 3.7 to 3.6 million), the 6th straight year of decline. Teen birth rates were down by 8%.
Of course, most of the babies born in 2020 were conceived in 2019, well before anyone had heard of the new coronavirus strain. But the dataset includes December births, many of which would have been conceived in mid-March to mid-April. And when we look at the month-over-month data, December births were down 8% in 2020 compared to 2019.
2. Hard times often lead to fertility declines
For all the stories about “blizzard babies” there’s mixed evidence that short-term natural disasters increase birth rates. And long-term hardship, including economic recessions or pandemics, usually leads to a drop in birth rates.
In fact, demographers started predicting a “COVID baby bust” all the way back in June of 2020, expecting COVID to result in as many as 300,000 fewer births. These models were based on things like the economic recession, unemployment, and “the anxiety and social conditions associated with the public health crisis.” Plenty of data trickled in to support the continued assumption of reduced births: studies documenting declines in sexual activity, surveys showing families were planning to have fewer children as a result of economic uncertainty and other stressors, and even studies showing a drop in Google searches for pregnancy-related terms.
Research shows that people, in America and across the globe, had less sex during the pandemic. Some of this was due to social distancing and fewer ways to meet and connect with new partners. But the sex drought was especially pronounced among established couples who already had children, leading to jokes that the only babies conceived during the pandemic would be first children.
At the same time, there has been speculation that with teens out of school, less parental supervision could translate into unintended pregnancies. And there is evidence that time out of school is associated with pregnancy. Take a look at this chart, which shows the average daily number of births each month, compared to the annual daily average, for full term pregnancies in the US from 2007-2019, noting the likely month of conception. Compared to adults, teens, especially younger teens, do seem to have a higher chance of conceiving babies in the summer months or over christmas holidays.
But on the other hand, many teens were in quarantine though 2020 and had reduced levels of in-person social activity. While it’s possible that some pregnancies will occur to teens as a result of lack of supervision from parents or schools, we’re still expecting an overall decrease in pregnancies.
3. Teen birth rates have been on the downward trend for years
Teen birth rates have been on a steady decline for most of the last six decades. As best demographers can tell, the teen birth rate in America actually peaked in 1957, at the height of the baby boom. In that year, about 10% of American teens aged 15-19 had a baby. However, the age of first marriage for females had plummeted to an all time low of 20.1 years old, and the vast majority of these were marital births.
Since then, the teen pregnancy and teen birth rate has been on a near constant decline, barring an upturn in the late 1980s. In the last decade or so, that decline has been particularly steep — more than a 50% drop in the teen birth rate between 2011 – 2020, and a 63% drop since 2007.
Here’s a confession: we don’t fully know why the teen birth rate is declining. Sure, there are lots of research-informed guesses: better access to effective contraception, better access to sexual health information, less risk-taking behavior among teens, more intensive parental supervision, better understanding of consent, more sense of educational and economic opportunity, less autonomy among teens, even things like the rise of smartphones and the show “Teen Mom”. But ultimately, there seems to be a shift in teens deciding that they simply don’t want to have babies, and being able to support this intention. COVID doesn’t have the hallmark of a social change that would reverse this long trend.
So all evidence combined, our best guess is that we will see large decreases in the total fertility rate for 2021 compared to 2020, and we would expect that the teen birth rate also will show a big decrease.
Even as other nations battle horrifying COVID surges, here in the US, it’s starting to feel like the tide may be turning and life may, just maybe, start to be getting back to normal. The Spanish flu pandemic gave way to the roaring 20s, so it’s also possible that birth rates could tilt back up in 2022 and beyond.