Maybe we should have seen it coming last spring. That’s when the Mayo Clinic laid down the law for singles in the dating game. Avoid kissing. Masks always. Oh, also: No being in a room together outside your pod.
If you absolutely had to have sex during the pandemic, the clinic allowed, "You might also consider engaging in sexual activity with partners via text, photos or videos, ideally using an encrypted platform to provide privacy protection."
Ack. Encrypted sexting might do the trick for some people. But it’s not tops at generating babies — or the relationships that lead to them.
And so the baby bust is upon us.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics last week released provisional birth data from the end of 2020 — something like a quarterly stork report. The data match predictions: 40,000 births that statistically could have been expected to happen at the end of last year just … didn’t.
The annualized birth rate dropped in nearly every age group, and for mothers of every major race and ethnicity.
But maybe that’s not because, or not just because, single people couldn’t make out. And not just because the already-coupled were too busy worrying about health and money, or installing encrypted software, to conceive during a pandemic.
For 14 years, birth rates have fallen in the U.S. Since 2007, the fertility rate, which estimates how many babies a group of 1,000 women will have over their lifetimes, has been "below replacement." This generation will give birth to too few babies to exactly replace its numbers.
But last year’s dearth was even more severe: Only about 3.6 million babies born, down from about 3.75 million in 2019. The birth rate in the U.S. hasn’t been this low since 1979.
So whatever this brand-new generation is going to be called — let’s not go with Gendemic, k? — it’s going to be a modest one. They’re not going to be agitating or voting for their common concerns in vast blocs.
They might even have to seek solidarity with Gen X, my generation, some of whom will be their grandparents (gulp), to understand what it’s like to be overlooked, to lean in to apathy and to use irony to offset pain.
But I digress ...
Looking back on 2020, there were too many forces depressing spirits and libidos to tally. As if it weren’t enough to live among mobile morgues and overwhelmed crematoria, tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs, had to rely on food banks, couldn’t pay their rent.
Even six months ago, it was almost impossible to imagine we’d ever climb out of the slough of despond. Just last summer the former guy was still shortchanging states that were overwhelmed with the pandemic because he was bugged by their governors.
And though President Donald Trump predicted that the national death toll from COVID-19 could be as low as 50,000, and would certainly be under 100,000, it now stands at more than 580,000. Watching friends or family members fall sick or die in 2020 while Trump minimized and sometimes even denied the virus was taxing on the spirits, as gaslighting always is.
If there ever was a time the word "dystopia" aptly described America, it was last year. So no wonder we came up short on reproduction and births, even when statisticians take into account our already falling birth rate. Babies serve as an expression of hope for the future, and the future was looking grim.
But things are looking up. By all metrics, the nation is rebounding, thanks in large part to President Joe Biden’s vaccine program and massive relief projects. Nearly a third of the population of the U.S. has been fully vaccinated, and in 11 states the figure is 50%. The next Biden-Harris administration goal: 70% of Americans protected with at least one shot by the Fourth of July. And by then, it will include kids as young as 12.
We may not reach the goal of herd immunity, but don’t give up yet. Massive public health campaigns are underway to allay fears about vaccination for the vaccine-hesitant and to make the vaccines easier to get for everyone.
A heartening report from the CDC’s Household Pulse Survey further indicates that less than a third of U.S. adults reported feeling anxious or depressed over the last week, the lowest percentage in over a year.
Babies being born these days may not make up another baby boom, but they enter a world of promise. And nine months from now, we may find that vaccinated and less anxious women and men made up for lost time in the conception game during the first quarter of 2021.
As Alfred, Lord Tennyson, once put it, "In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."
Or maybe the smash hit "Leave the Door Open," by Silk Sonic, should be this spring’s anthem for the romantic, restless and inoculated. It’s certainly corny enough, and all about a young man’s fancy: "I’m talking kissing, cuddling, rose petals in the bathtub, girl, let’s jump in, it’s bubblin’."
Virginia Heffernan wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.