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Can Surprise Events Like Sports Upsets Cause Desperately Needed Baby Booms?


Iceland has made the news recently with a reported baby boom exactly nine months after their surprise soccer victory over England. Now, this whole story may be bunk, since Iceland’s birth rate at least as of 2016 was at a historically low level, so low that Icelanders aren’t having enough babies to keep their national population stable without immigration.

However, this isn’t the first time sports victory baby booms have been reported. Allegedly, Spain’s victory in the 2009 Champions League caused a baby boom, as did Germany’s hosting of the World Cup. Closer to home, hospital workers claimed that, nine months after the last government shutdown, DC had a baby boom.

As silly as this whole discussion may seem, it’s actually deadly serious: falling fertility may have serious social and economic consequences. Falling birth rates may carry a whole host of social ills: diminished entrepreneurship, diminished ability to integrate immigrants, diminished economic dynamism, diminished economic growth, rising cost of social insurance programs, etc.

For those who worry about these things, as well as how we will propagate the benefits of historic, received Western culture as it has come to be understood in this country, the possibility that smashing a sports rival could boost fertility is interesting. Can we really get more babies just by having a better Olympic team?

U.S. and Western Birth Rates Are Dangerously Low

First, let’s note that birth rates are low and falling around the world. The graph below shows fertility rates for a few peers and the United States.

Broadly speaking, if the line falls below 2.07, it means fertility isn’t likely to grow the population. From 1990 to the late 2000s, the United States had near- or above-replacement fertility, but there’s been a marked fall in recent years, even as other countries actually rose a bit. Euro-area fertility hit bottom around the mid-1990s and rose until 2010, but has since declined.

Let me make one thing clear. No country has found a way to boost fertility. Many people, especially on the Left, erroneously believe that subsidized daycare or mandatory family leave would boost fertility. But in fact, evidence suggests it does not.

Family-friendly policies may do a lot to help parents, and may even be good for kids (although the evidence on universal early childcare, for instance, is very mixed), but these policies do not seem to produce any lasting increase in childbearing. The most optimistic evidence suggests a large increase in the family-friendliness of policy may create a moderate increase in fertility lasting just two to five years, and that may just be parents shifting the timing of childbearing rather than total childbearing.

The Key Element Seems to Be Surprise

The point of all this is that if sports victories can create extra births, that’s a big deal. It turns out that researchers have actually studied the case of Barcelona’s 2009 win in the Champion’s League, and found tentative evidence of an increase in birth rates, although the effect was very local, barely noticeable at the national level. Because this event was very recent, we don’t know yet whether these births will be offset by fewer births somewhere down the road.

To my knowledge, this is the only study done of a sports-win fertility boost, and the effect was small, local, and lasted less than a year. Crucially, Barcelona’s win was not highly expected: surprise creates euphoria which leads to, ahem, babies nine months later.

So Iceland’s victory over England 10 months ago should be an ideal test case. We know that viewership of their victory was very high, and celebrations widespread. We know that the victory was very surprising. Iceland is small and the population very concentrated, which means it should be easy to detect any change. Finally, the country keeps meticulous records of vital statistics, which are made available online.

Unfortunately, monthly birth data for 2017 will not be available until 2018. So while it seems Iceland will make an amazingly good test case for the sports-wins-cause-babies hypothesis in the future, we just can’t say for sure yet whether it’s true. For now, reports of an Icelandic baby boom are a funny Internet meme, but not verifiable.

Can One-Time Surprise Events Cause Baby Booms?

Whatever the story in Iceland, however, there’s a broader question here. Can one-time events create baby booms? The famous first example of this was a 1965 blackout in New York City, which the New York Times claimed caused a baby boom, but later scholars showed may have caused a decline in births.

But hold on: there are lots of one-time events that could cause people to be cloistered together in privacy long enough to knock boots. Storms, blizzards, blackouts, earthquakes, government shutdowns, protests, and many other factors could keep people indoors. Luckily, academics have diligently catalogued what people do when unexpected darkness falls.

The evidence is mixed. Rolling “brownouts” in 1992 in Colombia boosted births by 4 percent, and that effect was persistent: mothers who had “brownout babies” still had the same number of future babies as comparable mothers—but these mothers also ended up in worse socioeconomic conditions 10 years later. So a real increase in long-term fertility, but also worse poverty. Similarly, research from a blackout in Zanzibar, Tanzania in 2008 found an increase in fertility, but it came at the cost of diminished health to the children born.

A study of U.S. hurricanes found that if you get a hurricane alert but low rains, it makes you more likely to have a baby; but if you get an alert and lots of rains, it decreases births. So the threat of disaster gets people to cuddle up together, but actual disasters have them bailing out their basement. More evidence from Hurricane Hugo confirms this, with the hurricane not only inducing births, but also marriages (and divorces).

However, research from Hurricane Mitch found this effect was short-lived. In an interesting break with trend, Indonesian villages hardest-hit by the 2004 tsunami had the most robust fertility responses, allowing decimated places to recover quickly. Similarly, research has found that fertility jumps up after high-fatality earthquakes, though this effect is not universal.

Man-made disasters have been studied too. For a variety of reasons, it appears the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 may have boosted birth rates, although it seems 9/11 may not have done so for New York City. On a large scale, it turns out that people who expected to die as a result of nukes launched from Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis had a lot more babies than people in places with less risk. This is similar to the hurricane risk situation: threat creates intimacy, as long as the threat is not realized in actual flooding or nuclear fallout. Though, hey, fallout shelters could be pretty cozy too.

No One Weird Trick for Encouraging More Babies

So an unexpected event like a sporting victory might boost fertility, but the evidence here is pretty mixed. Even when fertility is increased, it’s usually temporary, and sometimes has adverse consequences (higher infant mortality, for example).

Social norms that encourage turning off Netflix or the TV earlier in the evening could help.

The reality is that there’s no “one weird trick” to boosting fertility. We live in a world where would-be parents’ money can buy better and better non-child stuff: travel! Gadgets! Interesting food items! It’s all getting cheaper and better, even as having and raising kids gets more and more expensive, not least because foolish governments choose to make parenting too costly. The brute forces of economics will always induce some people to put off having kids just a little bit longer as long as kids are expensive and airplane tickets to Italy are cheap.

But all this research does suggest a few things. Social norms that encourage turning off Netflix or the TV earlier in the evening could help. In some sense, these studies imply Netflix acts like a kind of birth suppressant. Without electricity, people in blackout-hit cities find cordless ways to have fun, mostly by having fun with each other. As in-home, late-night-available entertainment gets better, maybe people aren’t doing the deed as much in pro-fertility circumstances (i.e., sans birth control).

“Netflix and chill,” it turns out, may often just result in… well… Netflix, and chilling. If we all burned more candles and watched less TV, maybe that chilling turns into something more, let us say, demographically significant. If some event were to occur which, say, put some old-fashioned fear that we might be blown to bits any day now by Russian missiles, maybe that could induce some extra sex and babies.