Will quarantine lead to an increased birth rate?
Unpacking the myth of the baby boom.
Stuck inside with few things to do for entertainment (especially when that Netflix cue has lost its allure), couples are sure to bring things to the bedroom—this is the line of thinking that has led to the ever-popular nine-month mathematics that gets calculated in the wake of a blackout, snowstorm, or other unprecedented events that force people to stay home. This is the myth of the baby boom.
At face value, this theory is straightforward and seems entirely plausible: With the onset of a disaster, couples may find themselves unprepared with protection, but looking for a good release regardless. Then, they get pregnant, and three-quarters of a year later, the world has a lot more babies. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, belief in this simple cause-and-effect has been upheld. But we’ve actually got it all wrong—including how we think of the most famous baby boom of all, after World War II.
The biggest baby boom didn’t happen why you think it did
It’s true that birth rates skyrocketed in the mid-to-late ’40s and early ’50s, but it’s not because global peace suddenly meant everyone had higher libido and fertility. It’s that in the years before the war—the Great Depression—widespread economic hardship and the influx of women into the workforce meant couples put off having children. When things are stressful, adding a baby to the mix certainly doesn’t lighten the load. Scientists still might not have a clear consensus on the baby boom that followed, but economists generally do: When times feel stable and the markets look strong, settling down with a family feels like a good idea.
Birth rates don’t actually mirror major events
It’s a nice metaphor to think of: A surge of new life being brought into the world as the bright spot that happens after a tough time. But even in the case of natural disasters, things don’t quite work out that way. One famous study of birth rates nine months after New York City’s 1965 blackout initially suggested that the event caused a boom—but later research showed the number of births was actually pretty normal.
Still, the myth has held on, in spite of continued research that has shown the negative impact of natural disasters on birth rates, particularly when it comes to the people—often communities of color—who are most medically and economically affected by them. Babies are expensive—and economics, rather than the amount of free time a person has—are a better indicator of how many births hospitals might expect in nine month’s time.
Now, a baby bust is more likely
As for COVID-19, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way people treat intimacy and relations in countless ways, whether they’re redefining their relationship or getting out of one they realized just wasn’t working. And infants will certainly be born in a few month’s time—but experts now say that a baby bust, rather than a boom, is far more likely to take place. After the 1918 influenza pandemic, birth rates dropped by a considerable 10 percent—a historical precedent that far better represents the world’s current state than the period after the second world war. You might as well stock up on condoms.