Almost unique among the nations of the world, Israel continues to enjoy a mini-baby boom, while the developed Western world suffers a baby bust, a trend further exacerbated by the global 2020 pandemic.
The very first mitzvah in the Bible is “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). We Israelis tend to ignore many of the other 612 mitzvot.
But procreation? It’s top 10.
Let’s first look at falling fertility in Western countries. A BBC report by health correspondent James Gallagher warns of a “jaw-dropping global crash in children being born”, even before the pandemic. Some 23 countries, including Japan and Spain, will see their populations fall by half by 2100, as fertility rates fall below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.
The decline is dramatic. In 1950, globally, women averaged 4.7 children over their lifetimes. By 2017 it had fallen to 2.4 children. And a study by the prestigious Institute for Health Metrics, University of Washington, showed the global fertility rate may fall below 1.7 by 2100. The researchers expect the number of people on the planet to peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling to 8.8 billion by the end of the century.
“That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,” researcher Prof Christopher Murray told the BBC.
“I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognize how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganize societies.”
One consequence is that countries are aging dramatically. With low birth rates, as many people are turning 80 as there are being born. These are geriatric societies. They are homes for the aged.
And on top of the structural long-term fertility decline, comes the pandemic baby bust. Take the US, for example. A study by two economics professors, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, for the Washington think-tank Brookings Institution, predicts that “the COVID pandemic will lead to a decline in US births of about 8% (in 2020), resulting in 300,000 fewer births this year than would be otherwise expected.” A similar baby bust occurred during the global 1918 influenza pandemic.
The pandemic baby bust comes in the wake of years of falling US birthrates. Nearly 5 million babies were born there in 2007. In 2019, only 3.75 million babies were born. According to Kearney and Levine, the Covid baby bust could see a “multi-year reduction in births that approaches – in reverse – the [post World War II] baby boom.”
The Brookings study observed that “an Internet survey of 2,000 women of childbearing age found that a staggering 34% of respondents had chosen to wait to get pregnant, or to have fewer children, as a result of the pandemic.”
Many babies postponed owing to the pandemic will eventually be born. But the underlying structural US baby bust remains.
Some believe this is actually ideal. As we continue to pollute the planet, cut down forests and burn fossil fuels, perhaps the only solution is to stop population growth and maybe even shrink the population.
I strongly disagree. Climate change can be mitigated, while at the same time the global baby bust can and should be fought. Israel’s trend-defying birthrate is highly desirable.
The two Brookings economists point to decidedly non-economic implications of the baby bust. “This (baby bust) will have serious implications for individuals, families and society. Some women and couples will have fewer children than they hoped, and some kids will grow up without the younger sibling they would have had otherwise. This could contribute to what some have referred to as America’s loneliness epidemic.”
Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone described graphically the US loneliness epidemic. The baby bust will make it even worse.
Here is how Moira Donegan, a columnist for The Guardian, a British daily, explains the underlying causes of the American baby bust: “The reality of why American families are smaller is not about a failing national character or a decline in women’s femininity. It’s about money. Because while many more women are choosing to have no children or fewer children, others are having fewer children than they would like. And for these women, their own smaller families are the result not of their own personal selfishness or moral degradation, but of economic constraints. For all of the pro-natalist hand-wringing over America’s shrinking tax base, the United States has spent shockingly little of its annual tax revenues on creating accessible and effective support for mothers. For years, the US has made domestic policy that has punished women for becoming mothers, and by extension, proved disincentive those who want to have as many children as they would like. This is one reason why the birth rate has declined so much: wo
men are not given enough material support by the state to be able to raise children while still leading prosperous, economically productive lives.”
Yet baby busts are endemic in Scandinavia, too. There, generous government programs for families and less female-centered household and childrearing roles have not kept birthrates from falling steeply.
As early as last July, just months into the pandemic, Dafna Maor, writing in the daily Haaretz, observed that Israel may be the exception to a COVID-19 Baby bust. “In most of the world,” she wrote, “the coronavirus and the economic havoc it’s causing are widely expected to lead to a collapse of birth rates. Not so in Israel.”
Here are the numbers. Israel’s birthrate for 2021 is projected to be 19.539 births per 1,000 people, a slight decline (1.5%) from 2020 and simply a continuation of the very slow long-term fall in fertility. Despite this, Israeli women still average three births, in 2021 – a level more or less constant for the past four years. This fertility rate is the highest among OECD (developed) nations and one full child higher than the next highest, Mexico and Turkey. It is equal to the US fertility rate at the end of the American baby boom, in the mid-1960s. And no, it is not solely due to haredi mothers.
Why, then, is Israel out of step with the baby-bust trend? I found the theory of University of Haifa’s Prof. Daphna Birenbaum-Carmeli, an expert on the social and political aspects of medical technologies, persuasive. Maor quotes her.
“When it comes to children,” Birenbaum-Carmeli says, “non-economic considerations may also play a factor for many Israeli families. The longer the restrictions on contact and the separation continue, the more likely that in some way ‘my home is my castle’ will take on the meaning of ‘I have to fill this house,’” she says.
“Paradoxically, a child is the sure thing. In this balance, between the overcrowding and economic distress on the one hand, and existential distress on the other, I imagine that different people and communities will arrive at different solutions,” she concludes.
In short – the pandemic brought enormous uncertainty. Israeli couples may find certainty in the concrete miracle of a child. It seems to be a very Jewish value.
My sister was born in June 1930, at the start of a decade-long Great Depression. I myself was born in November 1942, in the darkest days of World War II. There were tons of reasons for my parents not to have us. But they did – and here we are. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Someone once observed that for every baby born, two women turn into grandmas (and two grandpas, too). As the grandfather of 17, and great-grandfather of one, little Halel, I applaud that remark.
Babies are the trustees of our future. Without them, there is no future and little hope. This is not about demographics, economics or climate change. It is about hope, aspiration and renewal.
A baby, someone once said, is God’s opinion that the world should go on. It is also a mother and father’s decision, society’s decision too, that there will be a next generation.
Nature – trees, flowers, ants, antelopes and aardvarks – all do their utmost to procreate. Why should we humans be any different? In the great scheme of things, there must be a reason that the drive to reproduce is so strong among all living things. Why strangle it?
This is one instance where Israel is utterly out of step with the rest of the world – and a good thing, too!
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com