Remote work may have aided the reversal of America’s long decline in birth rates

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Image: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Remote work likely contributed to a 2021 mini-baby boom among women in the US — a reversal of a year-long decline in the birthrate, according to a working paper released this week by three economists.

Why it matters: It’s surprising. Economists predicted a crash in birth rates at the start of the pandemic. The rapid economic recovery and the rise of remote work may have changed the trajectory, the authors say.

  • The results suggest that workplace flexibility could be a solution to the long-term problem of declining birth rates – a possible driver of slowing economic growth – seen in richer countries.
  • “It’s the first recession where we’ve actually seen an increase in birth rates,” said Hannes Schwandt, a Northwestern University professor who co-authored the paper with UCLA’s Martha Bailey and Princeton’s Janet Currie.

Using the numbers: The CDC released preliminary data on birth rates in 2021 earlier this year and found a small increase, but the new paper’s researchers delved deeper.

  • They were able to further analyze new limited-use CDC microdata and examine births to US-born mothers compared to births to foreign-born mothers.
  • They found that the birth rate for US mothers increased by 6.2% compared to the 2015-2019 trendline – and that the pandemic has resulted in a net increase in births to US-born mothers of around 46,000 children.
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You also discovered that a widespread drop in fertility rates in 2020 – which has been plagued in the press – was largely due to a sharp drop in births to foreign-born women who were denied entry to the country.

  • In 2020-2021 there were 91,000 fewer births to foreign-born women.
  • This appears to be the first time anyone has given a hard figure on births to foreign-born mothers. It’s “a significant contribution” to studies of fertility rates, said Phillip B. Levine, an economist at Wellesley who studies birth rates.
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What’s happening: The increase in birth rates was more pronounced among primiparae and women with college degrees. Women with less education have seen sustained declines.

  • Those with more education saw their financial prospects skyrocket in 2021 and the second half of 2020. thanks to the rising value of the stock and real estate markets — making it a good time, at least economically, to have a baby.
  • A majority of this cohort was able to work from home, giving parents more time and flexibility to deal with the life changes and demands that pregnancy and a new baby bring.

For example: The shift to remote work in 2020 has fueled the decision to start a family for Anne Lopez, a 32-year-old tech worker in San Jose.

  • Lopez credits the fact that she and her husband could spend less time commuting and more time parenting. It’s “the key accelerator,” she said.
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Yes but: Schwandt said that work had to be continued to finally narrow down the causes of the baby boom. Another reason for the increase could be that women have had a harder time accessing abortion treatments during the pandemic.

The Intrigue: Recessions usually trigger a drop in birth rates; People don’t want babies when times are tough. Not this time. Economists credit the massive inflow of government spending.

Something to see: The researchers also examined birth dates from California in 2022 and found that the upward trend there has continued, suggesting that the pandemic has altered the longer-term trajectory of fertility in the United States.

  • “The pandemic baby dividend could continue to pay off,” said Schwandt.


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