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Economic shocks often reduce birth rates, as couples delay having children until things improve.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

One of the most lasting impacts of the pandemic will be the decline in births that occurred during it. Those missing babies will further suppress fertility rates that were already dangerously low in many countries. For Canada, this is a challenge. For China, it’s a crisis.

Economic shocks often reduce birth rates, as couples delay having children until things improve. The pandemic has been the shock of a lifetime, and its impact on the number of babies born has been severe.

According to data released last week by Statistics Canada, there were 372,038 births in Canada in 2019; in 2020, there were 358,604, a decline of 13,434, or 3.6 per cent.

That might not sound like a lot, but remember that drops in births owing to economic trauma tend to be permanent; fertility rates don’t bounce back once good times return. When millennial birth rates fell during the economic crisis of 2008-2009, some demographers assumed an uptick would follow later. But instead, the rate remained suppressed.

Here’s another way to appreciate the significance: Any country or region must have a birth rate of 2.1 children per woman to keep its population stable. In 2016, Canada’s fertility rate was 1.6, well below replacement rate. In 2020, it was 1.4, considerably lower still. The pandemic was part of the reason.

Canada is not alone. In the United States and Britain, declines were at or near 4 per cent in 2020. And this is not simply a first-world phenomenon. Urbanization – which leads to the education and empowerment of women, while also making children more of an economic liability – has brought birth rates down in developing as well as developed countries, a harbinger of the coming global population decline. The pandemic simply hastened its arrival.

The situation appears to be particularly severe in China. According to official statistics, births in 2020 declined by 15 per cent from the year before. Local reports suggest the decline this year could be even worse. Officials in the central province of Anhui predict a decline of 18 per cent in 2021. According to one report, the local government is warning that the province’s birth rate is “falling off a cliff.”

China contributed to this demographic disaster with its cruel ban on couples having more than one child. In 2016, when the strongmen in Beijing realized that they had inadvertently sent the population spiralling toward decline, they increased the limit to two. Earlier this year, they increased it to three. But according to the low-fertility-trap hypothesis, once a country’s total fertility rate drops below 1.5, it becomes very difficult to reverse, because having two or one or no children becomes the new normal. Bloomberg predicts China’s population may start to decline before 2025.

Chronic power shortages and the Lehman Brothers-like financial troubles of the real estate development company China Evergrande Group suggest the Chinese economic model of state capitalism isn’t all its masters crack it up to be.

Similarly, China’s authoritarian efforts to shape the demographic profile of its population may have made a bad situation – the global phenomenon of declining fertility – worse. China’s economy will struggle with falling demand owing to fewer consumers, with labour shortages, with increased burdens on the young to support the large cohort of the elderly and with growing social unrest.

Canada responds to similar challenges through an aggressive immigration policy. The country is set to welcome more than 400,000 new permanent residents this year, more than 1 per cent of its population. That solution is not open to China, which prefers to preserve ethnic homogeneity.

Moreover, Canadian governments have increased supports for parents who want to have children but can’t afford the cost. Studies show that such programs may flatten the fertility curve, although they rarely reverse it. The new $10-a-day child-care program will make an interesting case study.

Some people continue to see China as a country on the rise, about to supplant the United States as a global hegemon. More likely, the Chinese leadership is searching desperately for a way to prevent a demographically driven crash. We can only pray they don’t hit upon the invasion of Taiwan as a diversion.

Nothing is more dangerous than an authoritarian power in decline. That applies to population decline as well.

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