More College-Educated Women Had Babies Last Year, and Working From Home Played a Role

Birth rates among college-educated women were 5.6 percent higher than anticipated in 2021 as more companies shifted to remote and hybrid work.

A woman wearing a Covid mask holds her baby while standing in her home, in front of a couch.
2021 was the year of the baby “bump.” Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, fears of a “baby bust” dominated headlines. In June 2020 economists with the Brooking Institute estimated as many as half a million fewer children would be born the following year, based on economic studies of fertility behavior and past data from the 2007-08 Great Recession and the 1918 Spanish Flu.

But research published this week shows there was no downturn in births due to the Covid pandemic; in fact, U.S.-born women actually had more children than anticipated last year. The uptick was particularly pronounced for college-educated women who were more likely to benefit from remote work, suggesting increased work flexibility made it easier to consider having kids. The rise in birth rates also occurred as more U.S. companies started to offer paid maternity leave, although the share of organizations doing so declined to 35 percent this year, down from a pandemic high of 53 percent in 2020, according to a June benefits survey published by the Society for Human Resource Management.

U.S. has first baby “bump” since 2007

Using natality data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the California Department of Health, economists at the University of California-Los Angeles, Northwestern University, and Princeton University tracked U.S. births and fertility rates from 2015 through August 2022. Their research was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research as a working paper and hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed.

While the researchers note U.S. births declined by 76,000, or 2 percent, more than anticipated in 2020 compared to pre-pandemic trends, this decline occurred too soon to attribute to the Covid recession, and can instead be explained by a sharp drop in fertility rates among foreign-born mothers that year. Amid international travel restrictions, U.S. births to mothers from China declined by 60 percent in 2020, while births to women from Latin America fell by 17 percent between March 2020 and January 2021.

There was no statistically significant fertility decline for U.S.-born women in 2020, though, and by the end of 2021 the total fertility rate among this group—or the average number of children they’re expected to have in a lifetime—rose by 6.2 percent compared to pre-pandemic trends. The uptick in the U.S. fertility rate is the first major reversal to a decline that started in 2007, the researchers note.

Besides a sharp reduction in January 2021, nine months after the pandemic began, birth rates among U.S.-born women have exceeded pre-pandemic levels in 2021 and 2022, the study finds, suggesting “conceptions soared in May and June 2020 while the pandemic was still raging and have remained higher than before the pandemic began.” Overall, the Covid pandemic led to a net increase of 46,000 children from U.S.-born mothers.

College-educated women see birth rate boost from remote work

While last year’s uptick in fertility and birth rates was most pronounced for women under the age of 25, it was also relatively high for women with a college education. By the end of 2021, birth rates among college-educated women were 5.6 percent higher than had been anticipated prior to the pandemic. The researchers attribute this uptick to “drastic reductions in the opportunity cost of having a child,” as these women “were able to work from home and work schedules became more flexible.” Women with less education, who are less likely to benefit from remote work, saw birth rates decline compared to pre-pandemic trends. Measures aimed at helping working families better manage their time, such as investing in child care and allowing for more flexible work schedules, could help boost fertility rates in the future, the researchers suggest.

Though this research suggests work flexibility has spurred more women in the U.S. to start or expand their families, other studies have shown working from home can also make it more difficult for mothers to excel in their careers. Remote work had a more negative effect on the mental well-being of mothers than fathers, a May 2021 report by consulting firm McKinsey found, and added burdens at work and at home since the pandemic had pushed roughly a third of women surveyed by the firm to consider downshifting their careers or leaving jobs altogether. The number of women in the U.S. labor force has been gradually ticking up since 2020, but dropped again in September, and there are still some 635,000 fewer women working in the U.S. currently than prior to the pandemic. Should more working women continue to have children in the coming years, policymakers and companies may have to more carefully consider how to help them stay in the workforce.

More College-Educated Women Had Babies Last Year, and Working From Home Played a Role