My kids got a fish tank for Christmas, which means that every few weeks, it is my (kind of gross) responsibility to clean it with them. I get out the gravel suction thing (official name) and get to work disrupting the little aquatic ecosystem—and almost instantly the truth is revealed. The water gets filled with all of the muck that was hiding under the gravel. I'll spare you the details, but it's not pretty.
And every time I think to myself, wow, that muck has been here all along, accumulating slowly and steadily. The water that appeared clean has been anything but—but it took a major disruption to the normal way of things to really see the filth for what it is.
For my fishtank, it took a gravel suction tube. For our country, it took a pandemic.
It is January of 2022, almost two years after the pandemic began, and the world is reflecting on the milestone we could have never imagined. Two years of turmoil and tragedy, and in many ways, we can only begin to wrap our minds around the enormity of it all.
The lives lost. The economy shattered. And according to new population data reports, the babies not being born. Due to the pandemic, one-third of women were considering delaying their plans to have a baby or deciding to have fewer (or no) children.
While birth rates have been decreasing in the United States for some time, current data indicates a significant and abrupt decline related to the pandemic—and according to The Wall Street Journal, experts do not expect this birth rate decline to be short-lived. "Demographers warn the dip is unlikely to be temporary, especially if the pandemic and its economic consequences drag on."
According to a December 2021 report by The Brookings Institution, 60,000 fewer babies were born in the United States between October 2020 to February 2021 than originally expected. The full scope of the pandemic baby bust isn't visible yet, but The Brookings Institution also hypothesized that we we can expect to see 300,000 fewer babies born in total over the entirety of 2021. This trend isn't just happening in the United States, by the way. The Wall Street Journal reports that births in France are down by 13.5%, 9.3% in Japan, and in Italy, they are down 21.6%.
The baby bust is not surprising. It makes sense that a pandemic would give people pause when considering if and how they want to expand their family. Plus, the 2021 State of Motherhood Survey found that 41% of millennial mothers say they're having less sex as a result of the pandemic. For those who plan to conceive via sex, this statistic might have some very real implications when it comes to family growth.
But beyond the obvious, the pandemic has revealed so many systemic problems—so much muck under the gravel—that makes it close to impossible for so many people to swim every single day.
The systemic racism.
The lack of childcare as infrastructure.
The economic disparities.
The educational system shortcomings.
The invalidation of mothers and caregivers.
The healthcare deserts.
The work environments that make it nearly impossible to combine a career and parenthood.
The pandemic didn't create any of these problems. They have been here all along.
That these problems hid under the gravel, that the water appeared clean to so many people before the pandemic, is perhaps the biggest marker of privilege and inequity we will see in our lifetimes.
It took a pandemic to show us just how broken we are. And now that we know, of course more and more people are choosing not to have children.
So now that we see the muck, the question is, what are we going to do about it? Because not only do we have a society in which people are suffering and dying unjustly every day, we have a society that makes people not want to have children.
On a purely economic level, it's likely that this will harm us. Fewer young people means fewer people entering the workforce, fewer new scientists curing diseases, fewer innovators inventing. Experts also worry about a society in which there are more elderly people than young people—something we may be dealing with in the future. Questions around who will fund the elder-care services and physically take care of the aging are already of concern to economists, and it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Let me be very clear: it is not the responsibility of people to have babies for the good of humanity.
It is the responsibility of our governments and societal infrastructures to create stable and safe environments in which people can make choices because they have the resources to support their decisions. And in that society with resources, it's likely that more people will choose to have children.
We need to clean up our muck, and quickly. Because—and I am sorry to do this to you, but we need to think about this now—we could have another pandemic. We could have another national and global crisis. We need to do a much better job building a foundation that doesn't crumble when disruption enters the tank.
So while we plan for our lopsided aging population of the future, we need to also correct the inequities of our present.
That means acknowledging and fighting systemic racism at every turn.
That means building childcare into the infrastructure.
That means decreasing the economic disparities.
That means fixing the educational system shortcomings.
That means validating mothers and caregivers.
That means eliminating healthcare deserts.
That means creating work environments that make it nearly impossible to combine a career and parenthood.
It shouldn't have taken a pandemic, but here we are. Are you ready to clean up the muck before it's too late?
A version of this story was originally published on April 30, 2021. It has been updated.