We’re still unravelling COVID’s effects on global and national populations, but so far, this is what we’re seeing: Higher deaths as measured by “excess mortality” around the world; lower migration between countries; out-migration from big cities to smaller ones or suburbs, at least in the U.S.; and perhaps most fascinating of all, a baby drought.
Birth rates around the world have fallen. We can’t know how much is due to the pandemic and how much is not. Declining birth rates, after all, have been a long-time challenge in multiple nations (see chart below). But COVID hasn’t helped – and likely exacerbated trends already in place. Last year, France had the lowest birth rate since World War II. South Korea recorded more deaths than births for the first time in history. Registrations of newborns in China fell 15%.
The fear is that the steeper the declines get, the harder they are to reverse. But it’s hard to parse out what’s temporary versus persistent. We know recessions generally lead to fewer babies. There’s good evidence that birth rates are pro-cyclical – that is, they decrease in bad economic times and increase in good ones. Lyman Stone of the Institute of Family Studies also has shown that “high-mortality events” like famines, earthquakes, heat waves, and disease predictably lead to lower birth rates about nine months later. But how much recovery in birth rates will there be with the return of good health and a robust economy? It’s a great question.
A big worry now is that all this is happening just as governments have taken on enormous amounts of debt (see Eric’s story on page 1). Future generations of workers will have to pay this debt off someday, but how does that happen when a smaller percentage of the population is working? HSBC economist James Pomeroy says that 10% to 15% fewer adults could be joining the work force in future decades.
The 2019-2020 U.S. Census data show that the U.S. too has taken a demographic hit the past year. The combination of higher deaths from COVID, lower births overall, and lower immigration have translated into the lowest population growth in 120 years – – 0.35%.
According to a recent Brookings Institute article, trends already in place in the U.S. further accelerated during COVID (William Frey, May 20, 2021). For example, immigration into the U.S. has been on the decline for years, and especially so since 2017-18. But immigration dipped even further last year to the lowest level in 30 years. In addition, the number of births minus the number of deaths – or the “natural increase” – has been declining for some time, but then dipped even faster last year.
What’s interesting about the Brookings analysis is its story on big cities losing out to smaller cities and suburbs. The common narrative is that there was a great escape from New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to the likes of Austin, Nashville, Tampa, and the suburbs beyond. That’s true – but not the whole story. For one thing, this trend started well before COVID. Also, as the charts above show, domestic out-migration from cities doesn’t explain everything. Cities also suffered from lower immigration and a lower “natural increase.” That means higher deaths from COVID, lower births, and lower immigration also played a major part in the population losses of big cities.