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December 07, 2020

Covid-19 and fertility

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The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly affected many lives, be it from lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, job loss and economic disruption, lingering consequences for health, and premature death of loved ones. Given these significant disruptions to daily life, it is intuitive that the pandemic may have altered childbearing plans. While some have speculated that unexpected pregnancies will rise as couples spend time in lockdown, comparisons to historical mortality crises suggest the most likely outcome is a reduction in fertility as couples postpone childbearing due to the economic and social disruptions of the pandemic. But, as of yet, the exact magnitude and direction of the change in fertility is still unknown.

That does not mean that there are no early indicators of fertility change. Within the past decade, Google search data has been increasingly used to predict a number of economic, social, and demographic phenomena. Using Google search data to predict childbearing is especially appealing due to the lag between conception and birth, very specific phases of pregnancy, and the propensity for prospective parents voraciously to seek information online. The intuition behind using Google searches for fertility prediction is clear—if we see a change in searches for pregnancy-related words like “morning sickness,” “ovulation,” or “pregnancy tests,” this may indicate a similar change in birth rates seven to nine months later.

In recent research, we use data from Google Trends in precisely this way to predict the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on future births in the US. We show that above-normal search volume for Google keywords relating to conception and pregnancy is associated with higher numbers of births in the following months. Excess searches for unemployment keywords have the opposite effect. We then combine the estimates of the associations between words and births with information on how searches have changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic for each US state.

Our analysis suggests that between November 2020 and February 2021, monthly US births will drop sharply, by approximately 15%. For context, this would be a 50% larger decline than that following the Great Recession of 2008–2009. It is similar in magnitude to the declines following the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–1919 and the Great Depression. There are, however, significant differences in our projections for different groups of women. Women with less than a college education—as well as Black or African American women—are predicted to have larger declines in fertility due to Covid-19. This finding is consistent with elevated caseloads of Covid-19 in low-income and minority neighborhoods, as well as with evidence suggesting larger economic impacts of the crisis among such households.

Fertility decline in societies already below replacement levels can have significant economic and social effects. At the macro level, decreasing tax revenue and greater costs for social programs are consequences of population aging. If these predicted declines in fertility arising from Covid-19 are simply due to postponement of births, completed lifetime fertility may remain relatively unchanged. Yet these macroeconomic effects are only a subset of the possible consequences of the pandemic on childbearing. As women increasingly postpone having children until older ages, further delays to childbearing may lead to unexpected difficulties conceiving. For many couples, this can have significant emotional and psychological consequences, in addition to increased utilization of invasive and expensive fertility treatments such as IVF.

© Joshua Wilde, Wei Chen, and Sophie Lohmann

Joshua Wilde is a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and a Research Fellow of IZA.
Wei Chen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Economics at Fordham University, and a Visiting Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. 
Sophie Lohmann is a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

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We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.