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Birthrates tumble worldwide, clouding post-pandemic prospects

Maintaining growth and social safety nets face challenge if declines persist

Births in Hong Kong fell by more than half year-on-year in January.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Global data on births in December and January, nine months after many countries began feeling the impact of the coronavirus, paints a grim picture for population growth that clouds prospects for sustaining the international economy.

Births have fallen between 10% and 20% in such countries as Japan, France and Spain -- and even more in some areas -- exacerbating a widespread downward trend in fertility. This has sparked concern about whether these economies will be able to grow and maintain their social safety nets should the declines continue.

While the latest data is not yet available for mainland China, births plummeted 56% on the year in January in Hong Kong, and fell 23% in Taiwan. South Korea and Japan, already grappling with low birthrates and aging populations, slipped 6.3% and 14%.

In Italy, the first major hot spot of last spring's outbreak in Europe, births slumped 22% on the year in December. Spain saw a 20% plunge in January. Births in France slid 13% in January -- the steepest drop since 1975, according to the country's national statistics bureau.

The "context of a health crisis and huge uncertainty may have discouraged couples from procreating or prompted them to postpone their parenting project for several months," a bureau representative told reporters. Many would-be parents were likely leery of giving birth in hospitals crowded with coronavirus patients.

Births to Japanese nationals are set to fall below 800,000 this year, according to one private-sector estimate. Pregnancies reported to the government sank 5.1% on the year for the 10 months through October, with an especially steep decline after a nationwide state of emergency was declared last April.

The National Center for Child Health and Development in Tokyo reported 126 deliveries in January, about 30% fewer than in the same month of 2020, and scheduled deliveries are down as well. Births there for the full year "could be nearly 10% lower than in a normal year," a center representative said.

Births to Japanese nationals are set to fall below 800,000 this year. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

If current trends continue, Japan's population will fall below 100 million in 2049, four years earlier than a forecast by a government-affiliated think tank, according to Takuya Hoshino of the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

"The accelerating pace of population decline could weigh on growth and affect [Japan's] finances and social safety net," Hoshino said.

A number of countries are scrambling to take steps to reverse the trend. Italy in July will begin paying a monthly allowance of around 250 euros ($297) per child until age 21, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has directed his government to consider a proposal to create a "children's agency."

In the U.S., one of the main engines of global economic growth, the situation thus far looks no better. National statistics have not been released, but monthly data for the northeastern state of Connecticut shows a 14% decline in births on the year in January.

U.K. research firm Oxford Economics expects the U.S. population to rise only 0.2% this year -- the slowest growth rate since the 1918 influenza pandemic -- due to the coronavirus as well as efforts under President Donald Trump to curb immigration.

One concern is that this will have a lasting impact on birthrates that were shrinking even before the pandemic, particularly in advanced economies.

The global total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman would bear in her lifetime if current fertility rates remained constant -- dipped from an average of 2.65 between 2000 and 2005 to 2.5 in 2019. A rate of 2.1 is considered "replacement-level fertility," the point below which the population will start to decline.

In the past, wars, economic depressions and natural disasters have been followed by baby booms as birthrates rebound. But there is unease that the coronavirus pandemic will not follow this pattern.

Young people in particular have been hit hard by the economic impact of the virus. A survey by the International Monetary Fund found that 17.4% of people aged 18 to 29 who were employed before the pandemic had either lost jobs or had their work hours reduced to zero. And with variants of the virus now circulating widely, many remain uncertain about what the future holds.

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