Opinion: we won't see the full impact of the lockdowns on birth rates for a while, but there will certainly be long-term consequences

Love is what makes the world go round. Core to our lives is the social connections we make encapsulated as love in its various forms. How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your love relationships? Moving to the bigger picture in terms of birth, death, and marriage rates, what do recent trends mean for our future? Economists argue that population growth is important for economic growth. With governments borrowing to dish out pandemic aid, the supply of future taxpayers to service that debt and fund public pensions is a cause of concern. In other words, money is key.

Let's start with the fundamentals: has lockdown led to more babies? The latest CSO figures indicate that the long-standing trend of declining births continued in 2020. We cannot simply look at the number of births during the pandemic and compared it to other years, as we need to take account of the number of women of reproductive age (generally, we look at older women to track completed fertility). The total period fertility rate (TPRF) is derived from the age specific fertility rates and it stood at 1.6 in 2020 compared to 1.7 in 2019.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Dr Carmel Hannan from the University of Limerick and counsellor and psychotherapist Margaret O'Connor on what informs a woman's decision to have a child

Ireland is not typical in the data that emerges around fertility so it can be hard to anticipate Irish trends. We are often outliers defined by our relatively late age of marriage, yet high marriage and fertility rates. Like elsewhere, the key factor driving our fertility decline is the behaviour of women. The more education a woman has, the more likely it is for her to enter and remain in the workforce, and to limit the size of her family resultant in increasing rates of involuntary childlessness. Falling fertility levels and increasing deaths are combining to create major new challenges and concomitant innovations, such as reproductive technologies like egg freezing.

A TPRF value of 2.1 is generally considered to be the level at which the population would replace itself in the long run, ignoring migration. The Irish TPRF fell below that level for the first time in 1989 yet Ireland has the third highest fertility rate in Europe in 2019, just behind France and Sweden. Countries such as Spain and Italy had the lowest rate at 1.3 despite a strong tradition of Catholicism likened to Ireland. In the end, lower birth rates, rising mortality and reduced immigration are combining to fuel population decline further but there are variations.

In the US, a recent study from the University of Maryland found that birth declines were steeper in places with greater prevalence of Covid-19 infections and more extensive reduction in mobility. Others have used data from Google Trends to predict the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on future births and predict declines similar to what followed the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and the Great Depression.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry Show, how mothers who have given birth throughout the pandemic have faced a very different maternity leave than they might than expected

All of this begs a question about what influences decisions to have children. Is it really all about economics and financial stability? The age of mothers in Ireland is interesting in this regard. We might think we are very progressive, but there is still quite an unequal divide in the life chance of marriage. In 2017, the last year data are available, we had the highest average age of motherhood in the EU28 at 32.1.

If we look at age at first births, the picture is not so exceptional. Almost 5% of all first births in 2017 were to women over 40 and only 1.7% were teenage births, which is comparatively low. By 2017, 37.6% of all births were outside marriage, with the highest rate of 57.4 in Limerick city. The divide is stark between women who marry and then tend to give birth at older ages compared to single/cohabiting woman who tend to have children earlier.

For sociologists, the social context is important in understanding this social gradient in fertility. Family size preferences, family and religious values, educational and employment opportunities, the role of the state especially in relation to family friendly policies and the costs of having children are all important factors. Recent research has focused on the role of gender norms and gender equality as they influence what economists call the 'opportunity cost' of having children.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Stephanie Hegarty, Population Correspondent for the BBC, and Prof. Fergal Malone, Master of the Rotunda Maternity Hospital, Dublin, discuss birth rates during the pandemic

What do we know? A 2019 ESRI report found that women perform an average of 7.2 hours more of care work per week than similar men, taking account of age, education and employment status. Women in Ireland report doing an average of just under 20 hours of housework per week, and men report an average of seven hours. The gender gap in unpaid work time in Ireland is seventh highest amongst the EU28.

International evidence on the impact of Covid19 points to an increasing care load for women at least in the early lockdown period combined with less leisure time. However, the involvement in care work may be unequal in practice, but it may have no consequences in terms of childbearing behaviour as long as it is perceived as fair. Indeed, Ireland has scored high in the Gender Quality Index, scoring above the EU average on all data across the themes of time, work, money, knowledge, power and health.

There is significant potential for the pandemic to disrupt long-standing inequality patterns in what happens in the household, who has children, who remains single and/or childfree. It will be some time before we see the full impact but one thing is for sure, there are long-term consequences of living through this lockdown.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ