Will the COVID-19 pandemic and declining birth rates change the face of Western society forever? The Bible shows there is hope for the future, but it will come in a way most of the world does not expect.
As much of the world shut down in favour of “14 days to flatten the curve,” many predicted that nine months later our hospitals would reach capacity in the most positive of ways—because of a lockdown-engendered baby boom. The logic went that more time stuck inside with significant others would result in a much-needed spike in children born. But now the numbers are in and, sadly, the predicted “COVID baby boom” has been a complete and devastating bust.
Much of the developed world has been teetering on the precipice of demographic disaster for decades, as birth rates have dropped to shockingly low levels. Replacement-level population growth is often cited as 2.1 children per woman—that is the average number of children that need to be born to each woman in order for a nation’s population to be maintained. Anything below that amount and the population will decrease unless offset by increased immigration. A nation cannot hide from demographics; the effects can be limited for a time, but ultimately the numbers will have consequences and need to be addressed.
As of 2019, the Canada birth rate was more than half-a-child short at 1.47 children per woman. A baby boom is exactly what the demographer ordered. Perhaps a baby boom would provide a silver lining to the countless challenges of the pandemic and stem the tide of our demographic demise. The problem cannot be solved by a one-year turnaround and a short spike in births, but a pandemic-related baby boom could have provided a bump in the right direction. Sadly, the opposite of what many predicted became the reality, and the baby boom was a staggering baby bust.
In 2006, Mark Steyn sounded the alarm in an article featured in Maclean’s:
The salient feature of Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia that is that they’re running out of babies. What’s happening in the developed world is one of the fastest demographic evolutions in history…. Demographic decline and the unsustainability of the social democratic state are closely related (“The future belongs to Islam,” Maclean’s, October 20, 2006).
The problem has not developed overnight, but rather has been growing for decades.
Despite some fluctuations, the total fertility rate in Canada has been below the replacement level for over 40 years. In fact, 1971 was the last year the replacement-level fertility of 2.1 children per woman was reached—meaning that couples, on average, had produced enough children to replace themselves (“Fertility: Fewer children, older moms,” Statistics Canada, May 17, 2018).
This problem is greatly amplified by the tremendous debt nations are accumulating to combat the effects of the current pandemic. A nation’s debt is often described as a burden shifted to future generations. This ramification of increased debt is only magnified when an increasing percentage of the population retires and is not replaced with adequate numbers of youth entering the workforce—the amount of debt for every worker increases dramatically.
Canada’s population growth did not increase at all during the pandemic—in fact, it decreased significantly, dropping to its lowest level since 1946. According to the CBC, rather than taking this opportunity to start or grow their family, many Canadians chose to adopt a puppy. Loyal and cute as puppies may be, they will not change Canada’s soon-coming labour shortage.
Why hasn’t increased alone time brought a baby boom? Finances are a major factor for many households, along with the uncertainty of our times. The National Post reported an interesting change in behavior observed during the pandemic:
The ovulation- and pregnancy-test company Stix found in a limited survey that 56 per cent of customers who purchased tests during the months of March and April 2020 were trying not to get pregnant, compared to pre-COVID times, when the majority were trying to start or extend their family (“The baby bust is here: Birth rates are falling despite our close quarters,” National Post, March 8, 2021).
The United States was one of the few Western nations to maintain a positive growth rate in recent decades, but the pandemic is also depressing the birth rate there. The Brookings Institution reports that the U.S. could see 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021 than in 2020.
This demographic time bomb is not exclusive to the West. China, the most populous nation on earth, is discovering the dangers of declining birth rates.
Analysts estimate the country’s labor force will lose 35 million workers over the next five years and that during that same period, the number of citizens eligible for retirement will surge to more than 300 million. That’s almost the entire population of the United States (“China to Raise Retirement Age to Offset Funding Shortfall,” VOA News, March 17, 2021).
In 2016, China ended its decades-long one-child policy in favour of a two-child limit. However, this change did not lead to a large enough surge in births, so earlier this year the limit was upped to three children.
Nations facing a demographic crunch will need to address the issue through policy changes of one form or another. Legal immigration has historically helped to support population growth in Western nations, but has slowed significantly during the pandemic due to travel restrictions—even while illegal immigration has stayed steady or increased. Immigration policy can be an extremely political subject, and declining birth rates will only draw greater focus to an already complex and divisive topic. There is no doubt that demographic change will be a driving force behind policy decisions on immigration, spending, and taxation in the coming years.
The prophet Hosea was inspired to give a fitting description of what we are seeing unfold in many Western nations. The biblical patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, and one of those sons, Joseph, was given a greater blessing, which would be passed down through his own sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Tomorrow’s World has long identified the modern-day Manasseh as the United States, and Ephraim as the British peoples, including England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is directly to these end-time descendants of Ephraim that Hosea wrote, “Aliens have devoured his strength, but he does not know it; yes, gray hairs are here and there on him, yet he does not know it” (Hosea 7:9).
Canada and other nations are facing tremendous demographic challenges, yet acting as though there are no such problems on the horizon. These problems cannot be ignored, and will shape governments’ policies and actions as their effects become more evident. For further analysis of the problem of population decline, watch Stuart Wachowicz’s Tomorrow’s World telecast “Fewer Babies: Population in Decline,” freely available at TWCanada.org.