Skip to main content
Statement banner
Policy Insights

Fertility decisions in crises: Policy lessons from COVID-19 and the Great Recession

By Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak & Anna Maliszewska

Fertility trends can be relatively crisis-resilient. Numbers from two recent major crises in Europe show this. However, not all countries were able to stabilise or rebuild their fertility trends. New research by the EU-funded FutuRes project’s team at the SGH Warsaw School of Economics looks into resilience as a core concept for demographic change. Based on a recent review of research literature, they discuss how policies can enhance fertility resilience.
Two young people, presumably man and woman, sit on a roof, only the legs are seen

Start a family during a crisis? A consequential decision for young people. Image: Duong Nhan/pexels

European countries have been facing below-replacement fertility rates and falling numbers of births. In 2022 the number of babies born in the European Union was below 4 million, which is little more than half of the number in the 1960s. European policymakers today are interested in stabilising European fertility rates and preventing further decreases in the number of births in order to counter the challenges of demographic ageing. 

However, acute shocks, such as Great Recession or COVID-19 pandemic, make this task even more difficult. These crises destabilise demographic trends measurably. This creates uncertainty for both policy planning and implementation.

There is, however, good news for policymakers, which is revealed in a new investigation carried out by our team at the SGH Warsaw School of Economics within the EU-funded project “FutuRes – Towards a Resilient Future of Europe”. We analysed fertility trends around two major economic crises in Europe’s recent past: the Great Recession of the 2000s and the COVID-19 pandemic. How were birth rates affected during these periods? Did they decrease – and if so, did they recover after the crises had passed? We then analysed these trends in relation to different types of state welfare policies, in order to explore the connections. 

The patterns clearly suggest that fertility dynamics can be shielded from crises – at least to some extent. Furthermore, we see that if fertility rates decrease during crises, it is possible to rebuild them to the levels they were before. Based on a review of the research literature, we argue that policy aiming to support reproductive choices needs to work on three levels.

But first, let us look at some facts for context. It may surprise many, but between 2007 and 2021 – the era marked by the two large crises mentioned above – the EU-wide total fertility rate actually stabilised. However, there were significant differences between countries: the fertility rate declined in 13 countries, while it increased in 9 others. Our study finds that during the Great Recession (2008-2008) and COVID-19 pandemic (2020-2022), while all countries faced some periods of declining fertility, the rates dropped most in countries which were hit by these crises most intensely. 

However, we see that in some of these countries, these declines were only temporary: families seem to have returned to their intentions to have children as soon as socio-economic conditions improved. This suggests that while these countries may not have been able to shield their fertility rates from the crisis, their existing policies stimulated a rebuild (e.g. Lithuania and Portugal) or even an increase in the fertility rate (e.g. the Czech Republic, Romania or Slovakia). 

In the long-run, both the “shielder-systems” (those that have relatively stable fertility rates during crises) and the “rebuilder-systems” (those where the fertility rates increase again after crises), achieve fertility resilience. However, there is a third group of EU-countries: those where fertility decreased but never returned to the pre-crisis level (e.g. Finland, Luxembourg, Ireland).

Fertility decisions are shaped by numerous factors at different stages of people’s lives. These factors include individual preferences and norms, as well as perceptions of security and stability in various aspects of life (income, housing, work-life balance, gender equality in professional and private life). This complexity is why simple solutions – such as using only economic incentives – have proven to be relatively ineffective in increasing birth rates.

Rather, policies that aim to build the resilience of fertility rates support the long-term stability and security of families at different stages of the adult life course.

We cross-referenced our demographic findings with previous research on the matter, which we condensed into a framework with factors that impact fertility trends on three policy levels. This framework can guide further analyses of fertility trends and the formulation of policies that enhance fertility resilience.

On the macro level, there is evidence that large-scale factors such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crises or recessions, or shifts in social norms concerning parenthood, affect macro-level fertility trends. Policies that can buffer or rebuild fertility dynamics in the face of these developments include, for example, providing accessible reproductive health services, like pre-natal care, fertility tests, and access to assisted reproductive technology. Further macro level areas where policy can support people’s choices to have children are: ensuring well-developed early childhood education and care as well as full-time schooling, parental leave policies, flexibility in terms of time and place of work, improving norms of gender egalitarianism and work-life balance.

On the meso level, factors including local labour markets and local governance and policies, including employment, social integration and education policies, as well as the occurrence of natural disasters and extreme weather, affect fertility-decisions at the family level. It is important to account for differences in rural and urban contexts – fertility rates are usually higher in rural areas and delaying childbirth is more prevalent in cities. Policies at the meso level that aim to shield or to rebuild fertility in the face of crises, should aim to foster group and kinship networks, solid family arrangements and social integration. They should also ensure access to childcare as well as quality education.

Finally, on the micro level, people can face instability throughout their lives due to things such as job loss, health issues, infertility, income instability and the dissolution of partnership. These disturbances most directly affect individual fertility decisions. Policies that aim to shield or to rebuild fertility trends can help make these disturbances less disruptive for people, for instance by investing in human capital development and lifelong learning at different stages of the life-course, by ensuring that people have the opportunity to live healthy lives, and by stabilising household wealth and housing.

In conclusion, fertility resilience is supported by policies that address the macro, meso and micro factors and disturbances people face throughout their lives. Our research shows how the concept of resilience can be helpful to systematise, analyse, and develop appropriate international, national, and local policies that support fertility resilience. 

Additional Information

Authors of Original Article


Chłoń-Domińczak, Chełchowska, Grzenda, Kotowska, Maliszewska, Tymicki: “Resilience as a theoretical foundation for fertility dynamics”, FutuRes research reports, 2024.