Could Italy’s triumph on Sunday result not just in a trophy for the azzuri, but a baby boom for a nation with one of Europe’s lowest fertility rates?
The anecdotal evidence would support this theory. Nine months after Iceland beat England in a Euro 2016 match, it experienced an unprecedented increase in births. This was the first time the nation had ever qualified for a major European tournament, and close to 10 per cent of its 300,000 population watched the game in person. Spain’s birth rate also shot up 16 per cent nine months after Barcelona won the 2009 Champions League.
Yet a new paper from Luca Fumarco and Francesco Principe pours cold water on the idea that sports success euphoria boosts human conception. If anything, Italy’s birth rate could benefit from more Berrettinis and fewer Bonuccis, given an increase in national teams’ performance is associated with a reduction in births nine months after the event. According to the authors, a massive uptick in the consumption of media and entertainment, followed by extensive celebrations with friends and compatriots, may ‘come at the expense of intimacy time’.
Source: IZA Institute of Labor Economics
Euro 2020 aside, Italy’s fertility rate (1.27 births per woman, higher only than Spain and Malta), is troubling. Since the baby boom years of the 1960s, the annual number of births in Europe’s fourth biggest economy has fallen by more than half, and in 2020 the nation recorded its lowest birth rate since unification in 1861.
Which brings us to the pandemic. Pre-Covid, over 50 per cent of the global population was living in a country with below-replacement fertility (the replacement rate is around 2.1). Now, we have a Brookings report flagging that the US had witnessed nearly 40,000 ‘missing births’ in the final month and a half of 2020 (i.e. nine months after lockdown began), and early projections suggesting developed countries could see a temporary fall in the birth rate of between 5 and 15 per cent.
As for the UK, the total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.65 in 2019, down from 1.70 the year before. Covid may prompt further decline: that young people struggled to meet new partners has been well documented, and some parents will surely be put off procreating after experiencing the horrors of home-schooling. Should the puritanical 26 per cent who want nightclubs closed in perpetuity win out, we could well have a more inhibited society rearing fewer children in the future.
Source: Office for National Statistics
If Fumarco and Principe’s research tells us anything, it’s that the study of these rates is an inexact science. There has been a marked change in the timing of first pregnancy in the UK as women delay motherhood: the age at which women have their first child was 23.5 in the late 1960s, compared with 28.9 today. We cannot yet know, therefore, the completed family size for those born in the last forty years or so. Our current TFR is a projection based on past experience, but it may be wrong.
What’s more, it is the decline in under-18 conceptions, fewer unwanted pregnancies and increasing female labour market participation which have played a significant role in this change. Only a minority would view these as negative developments.
Regardless, rather than divine whether apocalyptic headlines of a crashing birth rate are accurate, we can ask what governments can – or should – do. If shrinking populations will result in fewer young taxpayers able to foot the pensions or healthcare bills of the older generation, do we need a more liberal immigration system? Given the housing crisis is widely believed to be behind a couple’s decision to delay having children, do we reform planning laws, allowing more homes to be built and lowering costs for the young? Is it time for the state to stop spending at levels close to the taxable capacity of its citizens?
We don’t need a demographic time bomb to implement these sensible policy changes – and we should be wary of knee-jerk responses to an extremely complex problem. The German Reich conferred the Mutterehrenkreuz to mothers of at least four children. Deng Xiaoping introduced the one-child policy in 1980; today the average Chinese woman has 1.3 children. Viktor Orbán’s intense drive to get Hungarian women to breed involves nationalised IVF clinics, generous loans for couples who promise to procreate imminently and lifetime income tax exemption for having four or more kids. After spending a century emancipating and educating women, we should avoid attempts to convert them back into baby machines.
In 1937, during a speech on the economic consequences of a declining population, John Maynard Keynes said: ‘I only wish to warn you that the chaining up of the one devil [of population growth] may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable.’ Decades later, his words are taking on a significance that no football victory – or defeat – can mute.
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