It’s not just that fewer babies will be born—it’s also that different babies will likely be born, to different parents. As I wrote in July, white parents and parents with more resources might be better able to go through with their pre-pandemic childbirth plans than parents of color and parents with fewer resources, such as those who have lost earnings or jobs during the pandemic. In addition, the proportion of births that are “unintended” (whether planned for later or not wanted at all) may rise.
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The children of the baby bust may even have some small advantages, by virtue of having a reduced pool of peers nationwide. They could have slightly smaller class sizes growing up, as well as a slightly easier time getting into college or landing a good job.
It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that kids born in 2022 and beyond will have overcrowded classrooms and unusually stiff labor-market competition; the experts I consulted did not expect every missed birth next year to be made up down the line. “Some women will age out of fertility, but even for those who don’t, many couples are likely to experience persistent earnings and income loss on account of this economic crisis,” Kearney explained. “That will mean fewer babies born ever, not just this year.”
Researchers, however, are not expecting a post-pandemic baby boom to follow this bust.
There is a precedent, after some events with high or highly publicized death tolls, for birth rates to eventually rise above a previous baseline. For instance, researchers have documented localized increases in births for five years after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia (which killed around 200,000 people in the country) and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (which killed 168 people). And, famously, baby booms have often followed wars.
These patterns arose for different reasons. In Indonesia, many children and women of childbearing age died, and the rise in fertility “reflected the formation of new unions and the rebuilding of families in the disaster’s aftermath,” says Jenna Nobles, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the tsunami’s effects. In Oklahoma, the explanation was not as straightforward; Joe Rodgers, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University who researched the effects of the bombing, theorizes that the extra births could have been the result of a combination of increased community solidarity, a renewed appreciation for the fragility of life, and a sharper focus on the meaningfulness of family. And after a war, explains the UCLA sociologist Patrick Heuveline, a spike in births can result simply from soldiers coming home and reuniting with their partners en masse.
Though COVID-19’s death toll in the U.S. is huge—some 250,000 and counting—the pandemic’s multifaceted nature and distribution of deaths (which have been concentrated among older Americans) distinguish it from those events. “This crisis is not just sending ripples of loss across American families. It’s also an economic crisis, a child-care crisis for parents, an upending of our social institutions and way of life, and of course an ongoing public-health threat,” Emily Smith-Greenaway, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, told me. “I increasingly doubt that this crisis is being experienced principally as a mortality shock.”