Inequality and social change, 2022 pontification edition

Someone paid me to talk about social trends for an hour. To get your month’s worth, I recorded my end of the conversation, cut out some of the dumber parts, and then tried out Happy Scribe to transcribe it, which cost a few dollars. The lightly edited text is below.

And you can listen to it on your holiday drive or doing the dishes. Sped up a little (I sound smarter and less boring that way) and with some editing, it’s 30 minutes. Here’s the Soundcloud link:

Here’s the text:

Fast and slow, unequally

I think my two overarching things are one, sort of a disjuncture between fast and slow. A lot of things have slowed down, but things have slowed down very unequally. So you have relatively rich people staying home all day while life goes by at the same speed on their phones, and at their jobs. And I think that just widens the gap in perceptions of how people see and understand the world.

And the second thing is really widening inequality. Inequality is very foundational to what’s happening socially right now. Even if you’re only looking at one person, the inequality affects that person because it affects their social context. So inequality is a property of groups but it affects everybody’s experience. This feeds into all kinds of other polarization that we have, just growing differences in perception and experience, which are increasingly sort of unstable or unpredictable.

In the olden days, when it took six months to get information from between Europe and North America, things that happened six months ago were only happening now. And then instant communication means the whole world is happening at the same time. That’s a very new experience for us. So time is perception of time and place is foundational. We have to get used to the size of what just happened. If we had something like a 40% drop in people moving around last spring – nothing like that has happened in modern times. So even if we get down to just 5% or 10%, that would have been huge on the previous scale. So even if there’s a large reduction in the pandemic effect, we’re still dealing with disruptions on a historic scale, even if things moderate quite a bit. I think we’re still looking at a quite different landscape when it comes to things like how people relate to their work, their physical spaces and other things, also, as far as sense of risk.

A lot of it depends on the pandemic. Some things are already certain — global travel is going to be disrupted. If all you do is go between two countries in Europe for vacation, maybe not so much, but business travel, travel to poor countries, it’s going to be radically disrupted regardless of what happens at this point with the pandemic. So that’s already sort of written in.

Families

Family life. I think you can say some aspects have become more intense. Time together has increased. Some aspects have become less intense. So time together with extended family has been decreased. So I would expect certain things to follow from that, like people prioritizing family oriented leisure. If you couldn’t see your grandparents for the last two years, then your next vacation. Very well, maybe to visit your grandparents instead of going to Euro Disney.

And so that will change people’s priorities. Short term priorities. As far as making up for things they lost, people are getting together to have graduation parties for the graduations they missed. So there’s a big backlog of things weddings, baby showers, things that are celebrations or things that people consider to be milestones or life events that they don’t want to just lose. If you lost a breakfast at your favorite restaurant, you don’t have to make that up. But if you lost your grandmother’s 80th birthday party, that might be something that you do make up. So I think there’s a lot of catch up to be done that we’ll see in social life.

That relates actually to the inequality issue. To some degree, the first evidence we saw the sort of supply chain issues that are beguiling us so much now in the US were actually construction related things like lumber that started right away. And that’s when we realized that people were rich.

People who were staying home were renovating their homes a lot already in the pandemic, which seems sort of counterintuitive, like, normally, that’s something you do during economic good times and so on. But then we saw real estate prices going up. So we see that for people whose incomes were not disrupted, their consumption didn’t decline. And in fact, it may have shifted to be more active in some respects, especially in the home sphere. People investing in improving their homes and furnishings

Take me and my home office. I mean, I painted the wall green — by the time I painted the wall green that means I was thinking about a semipermanent situation in my house. So this used to be the guest room. Now it’s the office.

That’s very minor. But that’s indicative of the sort of the changes that people made that have their own momentum and some of them become permanent.

Fear and uncertainty

So people becoming more home oriented seems somewhat inevitable, but also the fear and uncertainty. It’s very unpredictable what that does. But I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have more. I don’t know if you remember, there was sort of a meme in 2020 that was sort of like, oh, how could this year get any worse? And then the joke was like, 2021 is the same. And I think part of that is just coping with the reality of a baseline shift in risk of catastrophic things.

So now climate change events that are unambiguously attributable to climate change are more frequent just over the last few years. Maybe it’s just our consciousness to some degree, but it certainly is the perception that, oh, this is going to change. Oh, this is the erosion of democracy. This is the fear of global health crisis.

People already talking about things like the next pandemic. I heard today that they’re changing the way the doors work on the buses in our city to allow people to enter from the rear, which was a problem during the pandemic because they wanted people to enter from the rear so that the bus driver wouldn’t have to face everybody and have risk. Well, they said on the news today, it also will be helpful in a future public health crisis to make this change. Well, we never cared that much about preparing for public health crisis before, so now we do.

Polarization and culture wars

I think what both the mask and the vaccine things show us — which are both such ridiculous issues to have culture wars over — I think what it shows us is that we’ll do it over anything. So even if we don’t continue to have politically polarized, culturally divisive conflicts over masks and vaccines, we’ll find the next topic.

That’s a reality that we have to anticipate beyond the pandemic. I think barring an extreme evolutionary development by the virus itself, we’re not going back to this sort of mass death event of the early pandemic. But again, if we realize how much our baseline has shifted, even if we’re making 5% to 10% adjustments, it’s still huge. And I think the people’s sense of what they would call ontological security, like the sense that I know how the world works, is disrupted.

And I think the polarization and cultural war stuff that we see is partly reaction to that. It always was partly reaction to social change. It always was, oh, some people saying, Why do you have to change the society so much? Why do we need the Internet? Why do we need affirmative action? Why do we need immigration? Why can’t we just have the world the way it used to be? So to the extent that social change is accelerated, then the culture war stuff inevitably will be, too.

And I can also add this is geopolitical, which is really not my area. But some of this is stoked by conflict between countries. So like the Russian intervention and the US political system — there are just opportunities for people to make mischief deliberately. Once we have exposed this vulnerability, once we expose that we’re prone to turn anything into a culture war, then it’s easy for anybody to take advantage of that, whether it’s companies with simple commercial objectives or countries with massive geopolitical ambitions.

One of the irrationalities about people react how people react to the virus is that they tend to be more afraid they’ll catch the virus from people who are not like them. So people don’t wear masks around their neighborhood, although they might when they leave the neighborhood. I think that perception is just sort of other people are more scary.

Diversity and social change

The race and ethnic equity and diversity issues become wrapped up in whatever else is going on. The fact that the Black Lives Matter protests were so enhanced during the Pandemic year was not an accident because it was a sense of things being a dramatic change and uncertainty, and people not liking the people have had enough.

So I think that continues. I do think there are generational changes in that which we haven’t yet grappled with. You can see this a little bit with how different young people’s attitudes are about gender and gender identity to older people, how fast something so fundamental shifted that a large portion of young people have a very different attitude toward gender identity than five years ago.

Generational change is very important. And if we think about how this has changed during the pandemic times, I think it had to do with how old you were when the pandemic came. And so how you were affected. Kids who were in school and had to switch school at home will be permanently affected. We don’t know exactly how much, but the impacts on academic achievement have been pretty dramatic in the US and very unequal. So low income and minority kids lost more reading and math and science development than richer kids. And that’s in an amount that would have shocked us before. And you can get some of that back. But you can’t get that all back.

I think if you look at the mental health data on young people, just a phenomenal crisis in terms of depression and anxiety, suicidal ideation. Young people’s mental health is in trouble. I see it in my students, and we see it in the data. And so that stays with them to some degree that experience stays with them forever. But in terms of cultural shifts, like the kind of things people think about with generational change, or are they more progressive? Are they more open minded?

Are they becoming more entitled, more spoiled and all those issues? I think a lot of that is really just age related, not generational. It’s old people thinking, kids these days. But there are some things that change.

The baby boom generation, especially in the US, was a generation that experienced change more than over the course of their lives more than other people. So if you were born in the you were born into that stereotypical 1950s family, those people are the people who destroyed that in their own lives. So just in the course of one generation, they were born in the 1950s family, and then they created the 80s family.

They’re getting older. So they get more conservative in some sense. But they’ve changed the way we do old age things that old people do now that the baby who brought us include divorce, include coming out as transgender, being more willing to adopt other kinds of family forms, like cohabitation, like living apart together, the whole attitude towards sex at older age. Those things came from that generation. And those things are young people can look forward to moving into that kind of old age. It’s harder to see what today’s young people are going to bring into older ages.

Demographic change

So what I said before about giant change, slipping back into just very large change, I think maybe what we see. So the overall birth rate decline in the US in 2020 was about 4%, which is the biggest one year change in 50 years. So that was crisis response.

But we’re still seeing lower birth rates. We already were seeing lower birth rates. So it’s a question of how the pandemic merged with existing trends. And here I’ll go back to the slow thing. Demographic things all slowed down except death, birth slowed down, marriage, divorce even slowed down and migration, at least immigration migration within countries.

Even if those things head back towards normal, the shifts that we saw were pretty big. If you look sort of between November and February, that four-month period birth rates were probably down in the US more like 10%. So half a year of a 10% decline is a very big ripple, no matter what.

And you can’t get that back. That’s the way birth rates work is even if you can’t have more babies born last year, no matter what you do. Even if birth rates come back. And I think probably what we’re going to see with birth rates is a combination of some births that we make a distinction between quantum and tempo, between births that are permanently lost and birds that are delayed. And there’s a relationship between them. If all young people together decide not to have a baby this year, and then they all decide that they will do it next year, some of them won’t.

So there’s a relationship between delay and total and total decline that we’ll definitely see. So birth rates are going to be down. And so that means population growth so slow. That means populations will continue to age. And even if it’s a short term effect, it’s contributing to the longer term trend in that direction in all developed societies, for sure.

When we look at the other demographic things like marriage and divorce, it’s the kind of thing where you could see a rebound that makes up for those things. I think when housing prices go down, it’s harder to divorce because you have to sell your house to divorce. On the other hand, high house prices give certain people opportunities. Okay, so if there’s, like, a roaring 20s reaction and we’re all thrilled and excited when this is all over, you could see a rebound of certain things like marriage. But so far, there’s no sign of that. We had a huge decline in 2020, and it’s come back a little bit, but it has nothing to make up. So we lost a lot of marriages, maybe forever.

And then when it comes to migration, in terms of the wealthy societies, immigration was the only hedge against population decline. And if the culture turns more against immigration, either because of racism and nativism or because the pandemic prohibits travel and stuff, then that means that our ability to respond to population decline is reduced.

So population decline seems pretty inevitable in the rich countries being accelerated by these events.

Policy and economics

Well, I do think there’s a possibility on health, a good possibility that this whole thing in the US pushes us more in the direction of paying attention to public health and maybe even access to health. I was really intrigued that everybody assumed that COVID related testing and vaccination, of course, would be free. There’s no reason that COVID stuff should be free, but cancer treatment is not. It’s just that it happened so fast and we had to deal with it. It’s sort of like we learned how important healthcare is.

So, of course, Americans, no offense, are terrible at learning lessons, but it’s possible some people there’s possibly positive direction, positive change in some of that area. We’ll understand the public responsibility for things like healthcare. I am afraid that for personal relationships and romantic relationships and families, it’s mostly damage. So even if there’s sort of silver linings and people come to appreciate the good things in life and so on, those are all rebound effects from trauma and so they don’t overcome the bad things. I don’t see that happening anyway.

So if you think about the vulnerability and fear and heartache and all those things, I don’t know, I guess I think people will overreact will overreact to things in positive and negatively. So if you’re trying to predict people’s behavior, it probably gets harder and riskier. Well for white collar and middle class people. Certainly a shift. The working at home is not going away.

And it’s very class skewed. It’s not only related to income and status, but it’s highly correlated and it’s not changing. I mean, it’s not going all the way back.

So that’s very big. When we talk about the great resignation and people quitting their jobs again. Remember the scale, if we have a 10% increase in unemployment for a few months, that’s extreme. And we shouldn’t expect that to ever happen again. So if a few million people quit their jobs in anger, that might be a one-time thing. But if quitting your job in anger becomes even 5% more likely in the coming years, that’s very noticeable from a business perspective. And so I think some of that continues inevitably. So I think it fits into the pattern of diversity where we will see some people happy, attached, risk averse stay in their jobs. And some people fed up disgruntled, unable to accept frustration, will quit their jobs. And if the baseline is nobody quit their job and you can’t quit your job less than zero amount.

So if the experience diverges, it shows up as a rising average, because even if some people love their jobs more, they can’t quit their jobs less than zero. So inevitably we have more people quitting their jobs, even if what’s driving that is just a greater unpredictability to work. So if you’re expecting your employees to stick around, you’re going to have more of them quitting anyway. Yes, definitely more people quitting with technology and Zoom and all that. And like this, more work being outsourced and including geographically. So that is going to include international call centers and all that stuff that was already happening. People reading your chest X ray in India and all that is only going to happen more and more.

One thing I did want to mention is that global travel being reduced changes people’s perspective on things, even if not everybody travels globally between countries, those that do have a disproportionate impact, even if it’s only middle class or rich people who travel to other countries for vacations.

Those people have more impact on the culture than poor people. And so the loss of that and the fact that the pandemic is diverging between rich and poor countries means that travel is not coming back the way it was, and that’s bad for our attitudes, our open mindedness, our cultural integration, like all those things, are undermined by the loss of global travel, which I think we’re going to have for quite a while.

Youth power

If you look at in the US when we had was that rash of school shootings and that generation very short generation, a few years of young people who are super into gun control and were great activists and brilliant spokespeople or like Greta Thornberg with the climate change.

These things maybe are ephemeral, like they come and go. But on the other hand, I would expect young people’s progressive, not everybody, but like a large portion of young people doing progressive things dramatically. I think that will only continue. And that’s great, mostly that’s for the good, even if it increases kind of generational conflict, generational conflict, probably in the long run, is a positive thing. Young people are usually more right than old people.

So climate change inevitably will be a huge part of that. But I don’t know what they’ll do next, whether it’s gender, race, climate change or whatever. But I think don’t expect that permanent presence of a surprising group of young people suddenly showing up and doing something dramatic. So I expect that to keep happening unpredictably. And I think that’s definitely good.

Socialism

I think part of what happens as the Cold War fades is that the label doesn’t mean anything doesn’t have carries no negative connotation with young people anymore.

There’s no socialist country or society that is creating a negative example right now. Nobody really believes that China is Communist or whatever that doesn’t register with people who want more redistributive policies. So they don’t think, oh, no, we’ll become China if we raise taxes on Mark Zuckerberg. So to young people, that’s nonsensical to old people that still carries weight. But yes, and go back to the question of scale.

We spent a few trillion dollars on infrastructure. I think the idea of raising taxes 10% on rich people and redistributing that wealth will seem very, not shocking to young people. And so I do think that continues. And whether or not that actually becomes policy. I don’t know.

But I do think that the baseline has shifted on what’s an acceptable amount of economic disruption because doing things on a very large scale is not surprising. We just sent every kid home for over a year. So they’re not going to be shocked at the idea of a 10% tax increase on rich people, which would be totally revolutionized to welfare state in the US.

But in terms of stimulus and infrastructure, they’re pretty big. If they get the second one passed, then that could become baked in as new normal, a higher degree of infrastructure spending which us desperately needs. People do not realize. Americans have been very slow to realize how badly our infrastructure was failing. And I think Biden was very smart. And the Democrats were very smart to package all this other social stuff as infrastructure like elder care and prescription drugs and all that stuff.

Even if that doesn’t radically change people’s ideology in some ways, even if they just successfully spend that money, it will have a large effect. So that does mean things like Internet and airports and things like that could be improved, which are positive, even if they don’t, even if they’re not exciting on social media. I do think those things are pretty big. It’s not gone. It turns out the people who said Trump was just a symptom of a larger problem were right.

Trumpism

And so even if Trump died today, I don’t think it’s not going away. And what it means in politics is virulent racist nationalism is probably increasing. It means respect for democratic norms is less stable or secure than in the past.

And that also increases. And it means in terms of my kind of work, like social science and science in general, it means the science denialism, the undermining of the scholarship fascism like to tell us the authoritarians want to undermine truth itself. They don’t want us to be able to have a discourse that has any rational basis. And I think that continues when you look at the politicians. One thing the Democrats still haven’t learned is that explaining to the public that the Republicans are hypocrites doesn’t hurt them. They don’t care, the public doesn’t care, and the politicians don’t care. So that just increases. And in Europe, the far right nationalism has the added feature of being related to conflict between countries, especially Russia. And so it just continues to be stoked. So I think that’s bad.

And it continues. And in terms of democratic values such as they are, I think it’s quite bad.

Technology

I think a lot of the way technology gets into our heads is usually unconscious. And so one of the reasons why people are so angry at Silicon Valley and social media companies and things is because they always seem to know where we’re going before we get there. And it’s partly because they build us the ramp to get to the next place we’re going. So when Facebook introduced the Like button, nobody realized that that was going to change the way the Internet works for everybody.

So things like that keep happening. I don’t put much stock in the Mark Zuckerberg Metaverse at the moment, but on the other hand, I do think the people who will determine that are not us.

So the way we cope with these changes is by using technological tools. On the other hand, we’re stuck using the tools they give us. And I think that’s sort of true if you look at the smart technologies, the Internet of things, the things that connect everything to each other. I think people don’t realize how much of that capacity is becoming already part of our regular lives.

So even if it’s just your watch knows what your phone knows what your computer knows, what your thermostat knows what your car is doing, those things. It’s unpredictable, like we don’t realize we need those things, but we’re going to get used to them more and more. And the way that they make people want those things is by sort of the quantification of self. So like your watch tells you your calories and your steps that you’re breathing and your heart rate and also your consumer confidence and your insurability that stimulates people’s competitive thinking and their sense of responsibility sort of what they would call neoliberalism: if you fail, it’s your fault. The more people believe that, the more they want stuff like a daily score.

I think if the people trying to sell this technology are going to have figured this out, that you do it in the sense of giving people the illusion of control and self improvement and all that, that’s what people think they want. So you want your car to tell you that you haven’t taken enough steps today and they don’t realize that that involved that technologically.

What that means is that everything has to communicate with everything else. So they’ll tell us what we need and then we’ll demand it.

The bottom line

I still think it’s inequality. I mean, we were already upset about inequality, the people who were concerned. But even if you’re not upset about inequality, what it does is it widens the gap in perception and experience.

We’ve said before, if inequality increases crime and crime increases fear, then inequality is bad for rich people, too. It makes them afraid and anxious. And that’s maybe metaphorical. But I think it’s really true. So the divergence in perception is just large.

And I think you see it in sort of what Andy Slav at the public health expert, called in his book, the room service lockdown. Some people were locked down and some people were delivering them things. And I think Bob Dylan said in the whole world, like some of us are prisoners and some of us are guards.

It’s polarization in the literal sense of just extreme differences in experience. And so that undermines all kinds of social things. But I also think it just becomes a source of stress. And I think it contributes to the mental health problems. Honestly, if you interact with people that have a very different perception of life than you, it’s just harder to relate to them. And people are social, and they need to relate to each other. And so the widening gulf in experience between different groups just makes social life more tense and more difficult. And so I’m sorry to have my main social trend to be so negative. But I do think it is mostly negative. And that’s then to the extent that good things happen, it’s in response to that.

I’m optimistic about young people, that’s always the potential. But I do think that the underlying thing that we’re reacting to is the shift. Inequality, not just economic but in difference in experience and perception.

Comment on pandemic family plans

After reviewing a paper for JAMA Network Open I was invited to write a comment about it. The paper is here, reporting a large drop in the percentage of mothers who are planning or thinking about having another child in a sample from New York City in mid-2020. After summarizing the results, I wrote this:


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the US was in a period of declining fertility following the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession—a decline that was linked to economic precarity and hardship [2]. Then, in 2020, the total number of US births decreased 3.8%, which was the largest annual decline on a percentage basis since the early 1970s. The decreases were steeper at the end of the year, −6% in November and −8% in December, compared with 2019 [3]. In some large states with public monthly reports (California, Florida, and Ohio), it appears that January and February 2021 had fewer births still, with some recovery in the months that followed [4]. This timing suggests a direct association with the onset of the pandemic and closures that began in the spring of 2020. The evidence presented by Kahn and colleagues [1] supports this interpretation and suggests that when people faced the uncertainty and hardships associated with the pandemic, one common response was to pull back from plans to add children to their families. Future research will examine whether family decision-making in more advantaged families was similarly affected.

The current evidence concerns shifts in pregnancy planning. However, in the US, a substantial portion of births results from unintended or mistimed pregnancies, and these are concentrated among disadvantaged women [5]. The inability to predict, much less control, the trajectory of their lives leads many women to postpone the lifelong commitments implied by intentional births, but also makes unintentional pregnancy more likely. How the pandemic may have affected such births is not yet known. If mobility restrictions, unemployment, illness, care work burdens, and social distancing all reduced social interaction, coupled with increased motivation to prevent pregnancy, we may suspect unintended births will have declined as well.

The impacts of the pandemic within and between families points to the complex interrelationships among family structure, health disparities, and social inequality in the US [6]. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an inequality-exacerbating event on a large scale, widening existing health disparities, especially along the lines of socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. Excess mortality among Black and Hispanic populations in 2020, directly and indirectly related to the pandemic, far outstripped that seen among non-Hispanic White populations and contributed to the decrease in overall US life expectancy that exceeded that seen in peer countries [7]. In light of disparate impacts of COVID-19 itself and the social and economic fallout of the pandemic, research should concentrate on widening inequalities in fertility and family well-being, and their relationship to health disparities.

Published: September 15, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24399

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Cohen PN. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Philip N. Cohen, PhD, Maryland Population Research Center, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, Parren J. Mitchell Art Sociology Building, College Park, MD 20742 (pnc@umd.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

References

  1. Kahn  LG, Trasande  L, Liu  M, Mehta-Lee  SS, Brubaker  SG, Jacobson  MH.  Factors associated with changes in pregnancy intention among women who were mothers of young children in New York City following the COVID-19 outbreak.   JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(9):e2124273. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24273
  2. Seltzer  N.  Beyond the great recession: labor market polarization and ongoing fertility decline in the United States.   Demography. 2019;56(4):1463-1493. doi:10.1007/s13524-019-00790-6
  3. National Center for Health Statistics. Provisional estimates for selected maternal and infant outcomes by month, 2018-2020. Accessed July 1, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/technical-notes-outcomes.htm
  4. Cohen  PN.  Baby bust: falling fertility in US counties is associated with COVID-19 prevalence and mobility reductions.   SocArXiv, March 17, 2021. doi:10.31235/osf.io/qwxz3
  5. Hartnett  CS, Gemmill  A.  Recent trends in US childbearing intentions.   Demography. 2020;57(6):2035-2045. doi:10.1007/s13524-020-00929-w
  6. Thomeer  MB, Yahirun  J, Colón-López  A.  How families matter for health inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic.   J Fam Theory Rev. 2020;12(4):448-463. doi:10.1111/jftr.12398
  7. Woolf  SH, Masters  RK, Aron  LY.  Effect of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 on life expectancy across populations in the USA and other high income countries: simulations of provisional mortality data.   BMJ. 2021;373(n1343):n1343. doi:10.1136/bmj.n1343

Pandemic Baby Bust situation update

[Update: California released revised birth numbers, which added a trivial number to previous months, except December, where they added a few thousand, so now the state has a 10% decline for the month, relative to 2019. I hadn’t seen a revision that large before.]

Lots of people are talking about falling birth rates — even more than they were before. First a data snapshot, then a link roundup.

For US states, we have numbers through December for Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, and Ohio. They are all showing substantial declines in birth rates from previous years. Most dramatically, California just posted December numbers, and revised the numbers from earlier months, now showing a 19% 10% drop in December. After adding about 500 births to November and a few to October, the drop in those two months is now 9%. The state’s overall drop for the year is now 6.2%. These are, to put it mildly, very larges declines in historical terms. Even if California adds 500 to December later, it will still be down 18%. Yikes. One thing we don’t yet know is how much of this is driven by people moving around, rather than just changes in birth rates. California in 2019 had more people leaving the state (before the pandemic) than before, and presumably there have been essentially no international immigrants in 2020. Hawaii also has some “birth tourism”, which probably didn’t happen in 2020, and has had a bad year for tourism generally. So much remains to be learned.

Here are the state trends (figure updated Feb 18):

births 18-20 state small multiple by month

From the few non-US places that I’m getting monthly data so far, the trend is not so dramatic. Although British Columbia posted a steep drop in December. I don’t know why I keep hoping Scotland will settle down their numbers… (updated Feb 18):

births countries 18-20 small multiple by month

Here are some recent items from elsewhere on this topic:

  • That led to some local TV, including this from KARE11 in Minneapolis:

Good news / bad news clarification

There’s an unfortunate piece of editing in the NBCLX piece, where I’m quoted like this: “Well, this is a bad situation. [cut] The declines we’re seeing now are pretty substantial.” To clarify — and I said this in the interview, but accidents happen — I am not saying the decline in births is a bad situation, I’m saying the pandemic is a bad situation, which is causing a decline in births. Unfortunately, this has slipped. As when the Independent quoted the piece (without talking to me) and said, “Speaking to the outlet, Philip Cohen, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland, called the decline a ‘bad situation’.”


The data for this project is available here: osf.io/pvz3g/. You’re free to use it.


For more on fertility decline, including whether it’s good or bad, and where it might be going, follow the fertility tag.


Acknowledgement: We have lots of good conversation about this on Twitter, where there is great demography going on. Also, Lisa Carlson, a graduate student at Bowling Green State University, who works in the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, pointed me toward some of this state data, which I appreciate.

COVID-19 Baby Bust update and data

Joe Pinsker at the Atlantic has a piece out on the coming (probable) baby bust. In it he reviews existing evidence for a coming decline in births as a result of the pandemic, especially including historical comparisons and Google search data. Could we see this already?

Pinsker writes:

The baby bust isn’t expected to begin in earnest until December. And it could take a bit longer than that, Sarah Hayford, a sociologist at Ohio State University, told me, if parents-to-be didn’t adjust their plans in response to the pandemic immediately back in March, when its duration wasn’t widely apparent.

If people immediately changed their plans in February, we might see a decline in births in October, but Hayford is right that’s early. And what about September, for which I’ve already observed declining births in Florida and California? If people who were pregnant already in January had miscarriages or abortions because of the pandemic, that would result in fewer births in September, but how big could that effect be? So maybe the Florida and California data are flukes, or data errors, or lots of pregnant people left those states and gave birth elsewhere (or pregnant people who normally come didn’t arrive). Perhaps more likely is that 2020 was already going to be a down year. As I told Pinsker:

“It might actually be that we were already heading for a record drop in births this year … If that’s the case, then birth rates in 2021 are probably going to be even more shockingly low.”

Anyway, we’ll find out soon enough. And to that end I’ve started assembling a dataset of monthly births where I can find them, which so far includes Florida, California, Oregon, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Hawaii, Sweden, Finland, Scotland, and the Netherlands, to varying degrees of timeliness. As of today we have October data for some of them:

As of now Florida and California remain the strongest cases for a pandemic effect. But they are also both likely to add some more births to October (in November’s report, California increased the September number by 3%).

Anyway, lots of speculation while we’re killing time. You can get the little dataset here on the Open Science Framework: https://osf.io/pvz3g/. Check the date on the .csv or .xlsx file to see what I last updated it. I’ll add more countries or states if I find out about them.

New COVID-19 and Health Disparities lecture

I recorded a new version of the lecture I created last spring: COVID-19 and Health Disparities. It defines health disparities, introduces the theory of fundamental causes, and then describes COVID-19 disparities by race/ethnicity and age with reference to education and occupational inequality. For intro sociology students.

Using data from Bureau of Labor Statistics (inspired by this piece from Justin Fox), I showed the percentage of workers working at home according to the median wage in their occupations, illustrating how people in lower-paid occupations aren’t working at home, while professionals and managers are:

And, using age- and race/ethnic-specific mortality rates from CDC, with population denominators from the 2018 ACS (I don’t know why I can’t find the denominators CDC uses), I made this:

The greatest race/ethnic disparities are in the working ages, which suggests they are driven at least partly by occupational inequality.

The lecture 23 minutes, slides with references and links are here.

Are pandemic effects on birth rates already detectable?

As birth data approaches, maybe we can get beyond analyses like Google searches for pregnancy-related terms to see what’s happening with birth rates.

At this writing we are a few days shy of 35 weeks from February 1st. If I read this right, 10% of US births occur at 36 weeks of gestation or less. But the most recent complete data I see is from August, so it’s early. However, most fertilized human eggs do not come to term, being lost either before (30%) or after (30-40%) implantation. That’s from a paper by Jenna Nobles and Amar Hamoudi, who write:

Evidence suggests that multiple mechanisms may be involved in pregnancy survival, including those that affect placental development and function, fetal oxidative stress, fetal neurological development, and likely many others. These, in turn, are shaped by more distal processes that affect maternal nutrition, maternal exposure to biological and psychosocial stress, maternal exposure to infection, and management of chronic conditions. Pregnancy survival varies with women’s body mass index, consumption of folic acid, and in some studies, reports of stressful life events (citations removed).

The pandemic might reasonably have contributed to a higher rate of pregnancy loss from these factors. And then there are abortions, which people have probably needed more even though they had less access to them (see this report from Guttmacher). So the net effect is unclear.

Setting aside how the pandemic might have affected fertility intentions and planning (I assume this is negative, as reported by Guttmacher), there might already be fewer births, from loss and abortion.

I haven’t looked at every state, but Florida and California report births by month. In Florida, there were 9.5% fewer babies born in August 2020 than in the previous year (they revise these as they go, but the August number has been stable for a little while, so probably won’t increase much). In California there were 9.6% fewer births in August of this year compared with last year. Here are the monthly trends, including the last three years (I included Florida’s September number as of today, but that will certainly rise):

This is going to be tricky because birth rates were already falling in many places. But the average decline in the last three years was 2.9% in California and 0.7% in Florida, so these numbers clearly outpace that naïve expectation. Also, what about spring? Maybe the pandemic was already causing a decline in live births in California in March (from immigrants not coming or staying in Mexico or other countries?), but if the decline in March was unrelated, then it’s not clear how to interpret the drop in August. So it will be complicated. But this is a bona fide blip in the expected direction, so I’m posting it with a question mark.

I assume other people will be way ahead of me on this, though I haven’t seen anything. Feel free to post other analyses in the comments.

Early pandemic demographic indicators

A couple new ones and a couple updates.

Pregnancy

The pandemic could be affecting the number of abortions, miscarriages, or infant deaths, but unless those effects are large it should be too early to see effects on the total birth rate, given that we’re only about 7 months into it here. So for possible birth indicators I did a little Google search analysis using the public Google Trends data.

I found three searches that were pretty well correlated in the weekly series: “am I pregnant”, “pregnancy test,” and “morning sickness”, which all should have something to do with the frequency of new pregnancies. I ran Google Trends back five years, created an index from these searches (alpha = .68) , smoothed it a little, and this is what I got:

There was already a big drop in 2019 from the previous three years (reasonable, based on recent trends), and then 2020 started out with a further drop. But then it spiked downward in March before rebounding back to its lower level. So, maybe that implies birth rates will keep falling but not off the charts compared with recent trends.

I also checked “missed period,” which was not well correlated with the others, and got this:

Again, 2019 was already showing some decline, and 2020 started out lower than that, and now searches for “missed period” are running lower than last year, but not more in the middle of the year than they were in the beginning. So, inconclusive for pandemic effect.

Weddings

Here’s a new take on the Google trends for weddings. I took the averages of searches for “wedding invitations”, “wedding shower”, “bridal shower”, “wedding shower”, and “wedding dresses” (alpha=.94). With a little smoothing, here is 2020 compared with the average of the four previous years (unlike pregnancy searches, this one didn’t show a marked decline in 2019 compared with previous years).

March and April showed catastrophic declines in searches for wedding topics, and the rebound so far has been weak. However, weddings aren’t the same as marriages. Maybe people who had to cancel their weddings still got married down at whatever the pandemic equivalent of the courthouse is. So here’s the same analysis just for the search term “marriage license.” This shows a steep but not as catastrophic drop-off in March and April, and a stronger rebound. So maybe the decline in drop in marriages won’t be as big as the drop in weddings.

Actual marriages

I previously showed the steep decline in recorded marriages in Florida. Here’s an update.

Florida lists recorded marriages by county and month, one month behind (see Table 17). They update as they go, so as of today August marriages are probably still not all recorded. The comparison with previous years shows a collapse in March and April, and then some rebounding. August is preliminary and will come up some.

Marriages in Florida normally peak between March and May. Of course it’s too early to say how many of these were just being postponed. The cumulative trend shows that through July Florida is down 24,000 marriages, or 27%, compared with last year.

Divorce ideation

When the going gets tough, the afflicted want to get divorced, but maybe they can’t. It’s expensive and time consuming and maybe people think it will upset the children even more. (I’ve written about divorce and recessions here and here). So my initial assumption going into the pandemic was that there would be a stall in divorces even though the intent to divorce would rise, followed by a rebound when people get a chance to act on their wishes.

Here I use Google search trends for four searches: “divorce lawyer”, “divorce attorney”, “get a divorce”, and “how to divorce”. The alpha for this index is .69 (when I just use the attorney and lawyer, the alpha is .86, but the result looks the same, so I’m showing the wider index). The results show a drop in divorce ideation in March into April, followed by a rebound to a level a little above the previous year average. Note this pandemic-spring drop is a lot less pronounced than the wedding and marriage collapses above.

Actual divorces

Divorces take time, of course. Like births, I wouldn’t expect to see definitive results right away. In fact, it’s hard to know how long divorces are in process before they show up as recorded. However, in my favorite real-time demography state, Florida, they have been recording divorces every month, and have a look at this:

It’s a giant plunge in recorded divorces, almost 60% in April, followed by a weaker rebound. Again, the records are not yet complete, especially for August, so we’ll see. But comparing these patterns, it might be that there was a short suspension in divorce ideation as people were distracted by the crisis, followed by a rebound which hasn’t yet translated into divorce filings. Googling about divorce seems cheap and easy (and faster) compared with pulling it off, but this might mean there is growing pent up demand for divorce, which is bad (and may imply greater risks of conflict and violence).

Young adults living “at home”

I previous wrote about young adults living with their parents and grandparents using the June and then July Current Population Survey data made available by IPUMS.org. Subsequently, the Pew Research Center did something very similar using the data through July (with additional breakdowns and historical context). Pew used living with parents, apparently including those in households where the parents are not the householders. I prefer my definition — young adults living in the home of parents (also, or grandparents) — which fits better with the popular concept of living “at home.” So if your parents come to live with you, that’s different.

Anyway, here’s the update through August, which shows the percentage of young adults living at home falling back some from the June peak. I will be very interested to follow this through the fall.

Update: By October this trend had returned almost back to pre-pandemic levels:

Stata code for the living at home analysis is available here: https://osf.io/2xrhc/.

The pandemic and its attendant economic crisis is having massive effects on many aspects of family life. These early indicators are just possible targets of future analysis. There is a lot of other related work going on, which I’ve not taken the time to link to here. Please feel free to recommend other work in the comments.

Families, inequality, and sociology in pandemic times (video)

This fall I will be recording video lectures for students in my undergrad class. I’m thinking about the technical aspects, but also the voice and posture. Sitting at my desk at home is quite different from my lecture hall (I usually get a few thousand steps during an hour class). We’ll have to see how it goes.

In June I had a chance to do a one-hour consulting with a “major corporation” to talk about what’s happening in the world, which I recorded and rewrote into this post. I just did another one on the subject of modern families and inequality. This one was like an interview, where I answered questions. I transcribed some of my answers, and then edited that text, figuring it might give me a nice blend of formal and conversational voice, which might work in a video.

After recording the video, I went back and added in some graphics using Photoshop as my video editor (did you know we can get Photoshop as part of our university site license?). A much quicker and easier way, which I assume I’ll be reduced to in the fall, is just to record the lecture live using Zoom or some other PowerPoint screen recorder. Anyway, here is the result, in 12 minutes.

Note: The video includes an update to data from this post on weddings in Florida, and this report on the impact of the epidemic on reproductive health experiences, from Laura Lindberg and colleagues at Guttmacher.

Graduation remarks, 2020 edition: ‘We need you.’

Graduations are online this year. The good news is you can shop around for whatever speeches they want (Your choice: Barack Obama or Melania Trump). If you want one that’s under 5 minutes, with a 75/25 dark-uplifting ratio, aging leftist sensibility, and a little sociology, here’s the text:

 

Congratulations to the students graduating this year. You deserve to be congratulated for your accomplishments and the accomplishments of your family and community members as much as any other graduating class in history. Congratulations.

If that’s all you wanted to hear you can turn it off now. I won’t begrudge you. Because what’s next is going to be dark.

It’s common in graduation speeches to tell the promising graduates that the future is in your hands. That you will determine the course of our history in the future. I hope that is true. I sincerely hope that’s true. But I can’t promise you that, and neither can anyone else. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Humanity has gone through and is still going through a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. Millions of people have been sickened, many have suffered horribly, and hundreds of thousands have died, in the pandemic. And everyone has been disrupted, personally, economically, socially.

This virus travels the world on the backs of the healthy to infect and kill – among others – the old and the weak. The devastation has been worse in the United States than anywhere else, because of our systemic weaknesses, but now that it has set its sights on the poorer countries of the world, that likely won’t be true for long.

And that’s not the extent of our problems, of course. We’re in this predicament now because “normal” was already not on a sustainable path. Trump and the racist, nationalist horse he rode in on, the obscene concentration of wealth, climate change, guns, segregation, xenophobia, sexual violence, the degradation of our infrastructure, including science and science education, were all setting us up for this moment. Even if we can contain this pandemic, there is no sustainable normal to get back to.

And our tools for responding may not be up to the task. Our democracy is frail. Our discourse is polluted. Social media generates ever-expanding spirals of polarization, and it has displaced many of our other communication tools. Like journalism.

This pandemic will bring out more bad things. It will exacerbate inequality. It will lead people to shut down, and shut in, fear others, blame others. It has already put a damper on travel and social exchange across all kinds of boundaries, which has been a force for good – and that might last for a long time. And more people will suffer and die, many unnecessarily.

It could make bad things worse, if the economic crisis is long and deep, xenophobia rises, conflict flares up, war, political paralysis. No one can tell you these things are not very real possibilities.

But. In the contours of this crisis we can also see how to begin to make things better, how we could turn things around. If we make it possible, we could recognize the importance of collective action for global problems, including public health but also climate change. We can learn the importance of science and education. We can see the value of investing in social and material infrastructure, including the tools for public health. We might even learn the usefulness of government for saving us from the threats we face.

And you – You can still have great lives. Happy and productive and kind and generous and adventurous and doing the best you can. Which is what people have always hoped for. And you can do those things even if you can’t turn this all around. Look, people have made good lives in hard times before. You make life worth living by what you put into it, which is no more true in good times than bad.

And, we do need you. Even if you’re not not ready to invent this vaccine or fix our broken government. I hope you have your chance to do things like that, too. But before that we need you to figure out how we live with purpose and perspective. How we avoid turning inward and shutting down even as the physical distances between us grow. How to pull down barriers within our own walls. I hope you’ll help us, and yourselves, and the generations to come, figure this out.

Thank you. Good luck.

How big will the drop in weddings be? Big

With data snapshot addendum at the end.

In the short run, people are canceling their weddings that were already booked, or not planning the ones they were going to have this summer or fall. In the long run, we don’t know.

To look at the short run effect, I used Google Trends to extract the level of traffic for five searches over the last five years: wedding dressesbridal shower, wedding licensewedding shower, and wedding invitations (here is the link to one, just change the terms to get the others). These are things you Google when you’re getting married. Google reports search volume for each term weekly, scaled from 0 to 100.

Search traffic for these terms is highly correlated with each other across weeks, between .45 and .76. I used Stata to combine them into an index (alpha = .92), which ranges from 22 to 87 for 261 weeks, from May 2015 to last week.

For the graph, I smoothed the trend with a 5-week average. Here is the trend, with dates for the peaks and troughs (click to enlarge):

wedding plans searches.xlsx

The annual pattern is very strong. Each year people people do a lot of wedding searches for about two months, from mid-January to early-March, before traffic falls for the rest of year, until after Thanksgiving. There is a decline over these five years, but I don’t put too much stock in that because maybe the terms people use are changing over time.

But this year there is a break. After starting out with a normal spike in mid-January, searches lurched downward into February, and then collapsed to their lowest level in five years — at what should have been the height of the wedding Google search season.

Clearly, there will be a decline in weddings this spring and summer, or until we “reopen,” whatever that means. A lot of people just can’t get married. When you think about the timing of marriage, most people getting married in a given year are probably already planning to at least half a year in advance. So even if no one’s relationships are affected, and their long term plans don’t change, we’ll still see a decline in marriages this year just from canceled plans.

Beyond that, however, people probably aren’t meeting and falling in love as much. People who are dating probably aren’t as likely to advance their relationships through what would have been a normal development – dating, love, kids, marriage, and so on. So a lot of existing relationships – even for people who weren’t engaged – probably aren’t moving toward marriage. Even if they get back on track later, that’s a delay of a year or two or however long. This says nothing about people being stressed, miserable, sick (or worse), and otherwise not in any kind of mood.

In the longer term, what does the pandemic mean for confidence in the future? The crisis will undermine people’s ability to make long term decisions and commitments. Unless the cultural or cognitive model of marriage changes, insecurity or instability will mean less marriage in the future. This could be a long term effect even after the acute period passes.

What about a rebound? Eventually – again, whenever that is – there probably will be some rebound. At least, just practically, some people who put off marriage will go ahead and do it later. Although, as with delayed births, some postponed marriages probably will end up being foregone. On a larger scale, when people can get out and get together and get married again, there might well be a marriage bounce (and also even a baby boom). Presumably that would depend on a very positive scenario: a vaccine, an economic resurgence, maybe a big government boost, like after WWII. A surge in optimism about the future, happiness. That’s all possible. This also depends on the cultural model of marriage we have now, so that good times equals more marriage (and childbearing). In real life, any such effect might be small, dwarfed by big declines from chaos, fear, and uncertainty. I can’t predict how these different impulses might play against each other. However, on balance, my out-on-a-limb forecast is a decline in marriage.

kissing sailor

Data snapshot addendum

I didn’t realize there was monthly data available already. For example, in Florida they release monthly marriage counts by county, and they have released the April numbers. These show a 1% increase in marriages year-over-year in January, a 31% increase in February, then a 31% drop in March and a 72% drop in April [Since I first posted this, Florida added 477 more marriages in April, and a few in the earlier months, changing these percentages by a couple points as on June 5. -pnc.] Here is a scatter plot [updated] showing the count of marriages by county in 2019 and 2020. Counties below the diagonal have fewer marriages in 2020 than they did in 2019. Not surprising, but still dramatic to see it happening in “real time” (not really, just in quickly available data).

florida marriages.xlsx