Against all odds, the birth rate has risen in this recession. And telecommuting is partly to blame

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As the months go by and as the worst of the pandemic seems —finally— to be left behind, it is increasingly useful to look in the rearview mirror to analyze the multiple derivatives of the health crisis. There are readings to give and take. In the technology sector, tourism, health, at the political and population level or even at the labor level, to cite a handful of examples. A team of US experts has just published A study that brings together several of these perspectives until reaching a conclusion as striking as, perhaps, useful for a Europe in the middle of a demographic winter.

Which? the unexpected effect of teleworking in birth.

Review the data. That, basically, is what the authors of the study released by the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research): back on population statistics of the USA to look at them with a magnifying glass and calculate what mark COVID has left on them. The focus was on birth microdata for the country as a whole between 2015 and 2021 and the series of births registered only in California between 2015 and last August. His conclusions are, to say the least, curious.

The first is that although fertility rates fell in 2020, much of the data could respond to a specific and perfectly identifiable cause. Which? The “puncture” of births among women born abroad, a phenomenon that they link to mobility restrictions and border closures during the worst of the crisis. The second is a small “baby boom” among American women in 2021, in the midst of a pandemic. It is this fact that leaves the most curious reading.

The most surprising find. Thus, from “surprising”, the researchers brand the conclusions of his study. Combing through the statistics, they found how in 2021 the total fertility rate among women born in the US increased by about 6.2% relative to its previous trend. Thanks to this rebound and despite the “modest decline” in fertility in 2020, the pandemic would have left a positive net balance: an increase in births among Americans of 46,000 babies.

This 2021 baby bump is the first major change in US fertility rates since the Great Recession of 2007 and was large enough to reverse two years of declining fertility rates. concludes the report released by the NBER.

And what is the cause? To answer that question, another must be asked: Which women were the protagonists of the change? During their analysis, the researchers discovered that the shift had been especially pronounced among first-time mothers and women under 25, also among the 30-34 age bracket and the segment of women 25-44 with a college degree.

With these data on the table, the experts unraveled several conclusions. The first and that would explain the first trend —the one that concerns the younger population— is that the health crisis led some women under the age of 25 to advance their plans to start a family.

The importance of telecommuting. It is not the only factor that the study breaks down, but it is one that places the most emphasis and the one that has aroused the most interest. Much of the birth rate rise, details the reportcould be explained by the labor changes that the pandemic forced, including the promotion of teleworking and the framework of flexibility that it offered to fathers and mothers.

“The increase in fertility was concentrated in groups such as women with a university education, who saw the opportunity cost of having a child drop dramatically when they were able to work from home and their hours became more flexible. The reduction in opportunity costs may have been greater for women without children, who did not have to face the simultaneous loss of childcare and schooling opportunities for older children”.

Other relevant factors. Telecommuting is not the only factor that researchers have taken into account. Throughout their analysis, they recall the support programs activated by the Government and the Federal Reserve to support the economy, which left their reflection on domestic finances. The study notes that despite rising unemployment, many women found their income availability barely affected or even increased. There were families who enjoyed an increase in the value of their assets as the price of homes increased.

With everything, highlights the report, the rise in fertility “was concentrated in groups such as women with university studies”, which again connects with the possibility of remote work. “There was an unprecedented increase in remote work, especially for more educated workers,” he ditches. There would be yet another factor that the study published by the NBER reviews: access to reproductive health and abortion services, which could complicate fertility treatments among older women and increase unwanted pregnancies.

New and old lessons. The conclusions are interesting because they seem to overturn old certainties and hint at others. Perhaps the most striking thing is that it seems to destroy, at least in part, the maxim that during crises the birth rate does not increase. “It’s really remarkable because it’s the first recession where we see fertility going up rather than down,” says Hannes Schwandtan economist at Northwestern University and a co-author of the report, told CNN.

That of COVID-19, yes, was not just any crisis: the closures forced by COVID increased unemployment rates —the first month of the pandemic left a historic job drain— but months of profit followed. Another conclusion is the possible positive effect that teleworking and labor flexibility can have to combat the demographic winter.

Cover image: Alexander Dummer (Unsplash)

As the months go by and as the worst of the pandemic seems —finally— to be left behind, it is…

As the months go by and as the worst of the pandemic seems —finally— to be left behind, it is…

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