How working from home reversed a decline in U.S. birth rates
It’s not that remote work gives couples more time alone together, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s more that remote work leaves more time for all kinds of other things, especially housework and childcare. Remote work might also be strengthening the power of love, allowing long-distance couples to be in the same place and raise a family. After years of declining birth rates, it seems there’s been a mini remote work baby boom in the U.S., and indications are it might continue.
Birth rates in the U.S. did drop steeply in 2020. That came as no surprise, given that recessions almost always lead to fewer babies and the uncertainty of the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic put a lot of things on hold. But the biggest factor appears to have been travel restrictions. Taking a closer look at microdata from CDC, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research attribute that dropoff to the decline in the number of foreign-born women giving birth in the U.S. They say foreign-born women accounted for 23% of births in the U.S. in 2019, and that in 2020-21 there were 91,000 “missing” births attributable to such women not entering the U.S.
“A second and more surprising finding is that the COVID pandemic resulted in a small baby boom among U.S.-born mothers in 2021, raising the total fertility rate relative to its pre-pandemic trend by roughly 6.2% at the end of the year,” they wrote.
It was the first major reversal in U.S. fertility rates since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. Thanks to a net increase of 46,000 babies born to U.S.-born mothers in 2020-21, the remote work baby boom marked the first increase in the U.S. birth rate since 2014.
“It’s the first recession where we actually see birth rates go up,” said Hannes Schwandt, a Northwestern University professor and one of the authors of the research paper.
The fast economic recovery and surge in remote work likely played key roles in such a rapid turnaround after the U.S. reported its lowest birth rate on record in 2020.
Financial & Other Considerations
That 2021 remote work baby boom was particularly fueled by first-time mothers and college educated ones.
“The latter group were more likely to retain their jobs during the pandemic and to be able to work from home,” the researchers wrote.
That squares with what Economic Innovation Group researchers found.
“This increased flexibility and time helped boost birth rates over the pandemic, specifically for wealthier or more educated women,” Lyman Stone and Adam Ozimek concluded.
Women who work remotely and whose finances have gotten “much better” in the last year and 10% more likely to be pregnant or trying than office workers in the same financial situation, they report.
Stone and Ozimek found another interesting wrinkle in the possible continuation of the remote work baby boom. Unmarried remote workers are significantly more likely to get married in the next year than single office workers, their data show. The EIG researchers suspect the freedom remote workers have to choose where they live, possibly closer to a significant other, is impacting marriage plans by alleviating the “two-body problem.”
In the classic love vs. career conflict that drives so many romantic comedies and real-life relationships, remote work eases the tension.
But Stone and Ozimek also found that the next wave of the remote work baby boom might have different participants.
“Remote work has the biggest effects on fertility for women who already have several children, and no effect on the fertility intentions of women who have no or one child,” their survey shows.
Juggling kids and work is a challenge, but women over 35 (and especially over 39) who can work remotely are having a much easier go of it than their in-office counterparts. With the flexibility remote work offers, women in their 30s and 40s who already have kids are giving serious thought to adding to their families.
Remote workers with kids are spending 18.2% of the time saved by not commuting on childcare and 15.5% on housework, EIG’s data show. They’re also taking advantage of flexibility in working hours, spending more time with the kids during the day and catching up on work after the kids go to bed. With more time for the little things, parents are finding they might be able to have another child after all.
There’s a seemingly obvious but often overlooked factor driving this: People enjoy spending time with their kids more than they like commuting.
“Other research has shown that time spent on parental care of their own children is associated with more positive reports of subjective well-being; that is, people tend to derive satisfaction and happiness from being with their own children,” Stone and Ozimek wrote.
We don’t know what the long-term trends will bear, but it seems likely the next couple of years will see another mini remote work baby boom.