At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, just as the first lockdowns and 14-day home isolation orders for returning travellers were coming into force, there was a lot of tittering on social media about “quarantine babies.”
With so many couples locked up with nothing to do, surely there would be a baby boom in about nine months, went the joke.
In fact, the coronavirus will cause the exact opposite effect.
We’re likely to see one of the largest single declines in the Canadian birthrate ever recorded.
The first and most obvious reason is the fear of the novel coronavirus itself.
If you were thinking of starting or expanding your family now, wouldn’t you choose to wait 12 to 18 months, for a time when going to a hospital or doctor’s office is, let’s say, slightly less nerve wracking?
Some will still go ahead. Many will choose to wait.
But surely that will even out once the crisis is passed. Late 2020 and early 2021 will see a dip in births, and then we’ll see a corresponding rise, a sort of mini-baby boom as families catch up, right?
Perhaps. But it’s not likely to be a big boom.
The Canadian birthrate has been declining for decades, along with the birthrates of most every developed nation in the world. It’s an oft told tale, of how countries get rich, how women enter the work force, and how the overall fertility rate then starts dropping, to hover somewhere below replacement rate.
Fertility rate is measured by the average number of births per woman. A rate of 2.1 is considered replacement rate – all other things being equal, if the average woman has that many children, the population will stay about the same. (The extra 0.1 takes into account the premature loss of lives to accidents, disease, and other causes.)
Canada’s fertility rate dropped below 2.1 in the early 1970s. It has never come back to its old levels. For a long time, the United States was almost the only industrialized nation to escape this apparent demographic trap.
Until the recession hit in 2008, when they also dipped below that level.
And that leads us to the second reason birth rates are going to drop.
We’re in the early phases of an economic crisis. We don’t know how bad it will be, how long it will last, or what effect government programs will have to mitigate the damage.
But we can guess that it will be bad. A best-case scenario right now would be a brutally deep but brief recession. Most scenarios account for more long-term damage to the economy, with either a lengthy recession, or perhaps even a full economic depression.
Birth rates in many countries dropped during the Great Recession (maybe we’ll call this one Mega Recession?) starting in 2008/09.
Before that, Canada’s fertility rate had actually been on the rise a bit, up to about 1.6. Statistics Canada recorded that after 2008, it dropped to just below 1.5.
Now, none of this has been dire for Canada. We’re one of the few countries in the world where the majority of the population has a pretty rosy view of immigration – not surprising, since one in five Canadians was born as a citizen of another country. Immigration, whether of skilled workers, through family reunification, or by refugees, has added a lot to our national fabric, not to mention to our labour market.
Of course, while Immigration Canada is still processing applications, there are few to zero immigrants actually arriving right now. The borders are essentially shut.
And just as with births, immigration tends to drop sharply during economic downturns. Moving to a new country and starting a new life is a big leap, and the number of people willing to make that leap drops when the economy is shaky.
In all, it seems quite likely that Canada is in for a period of reduced population growth. That will create effects that will spread across our society – from smaller class sizes starting in six years, to impacts on the labour and housing markets that will rebound for decades. How big those impacts will be depend on how long the crisis itself, and the economic fallout, will last.
It is very, very difficult to say exactly what the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will mean for Canada and the world.
But lower population growth seems like one of the safest bets possible, and it’s one Canada will have to prepare for and adapt to.