Will birth rates drop post-Covid-19? People to stay single longer and women will sexualize themselves more: Study

Will birth rates drop post-Covid-19? People to stay single longer and women will sexualize themselves more: Study
(Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has brought radical change through deaths, the stress of extended quarantine, the confusion that slowed adequate responding, and a long and uncertain social and economic aftermath. These factors and America’s response to it are likely to profoundly affect families, work lives, relationships, and gender roles for years, according to 12 prominent scientists and authors. They predict that birth rates, marriage and gender roles will change dramatically in a post-pandemic world. 

The team argues single people are less likely to start new relationships and women who can afford to be on their own are likely to stay single longer. Birth rates will drop, many couples will postpone marriage and planned pregnancies will decrease in a disease-ridden world, they added. The experts also say that with children home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, women are spending more time providing care and schooling, are less available for paying work, and may come to rely more on male partners as breadwinners. “This will push us toward socially conservative gender norms and potentially result in a backslide in gender equality,” writes Martie Haselton, senior author and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) professor of psychology and communication studies, in the perspective published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

The team analyzed 90 research studies and used their expertise to evaluate people’s reaction to the Covid-19 crisis and predict its aftermath. According to them, unlike many past crises, this pandemic is not bringing people closer together and, despite some exceptions, it is not producing an increase in kindness, empathy, or compassion, especially in the US. “The psychological, social, and societal consequences of Covid-19 will be very long-lasting. The longer Covid-19 continues, the more entrenched these changes are likely to be,” cautioned lead author Benjamin Seitz, a UCLA psychology doctoral student with expertise in behavioral neuroscience.

Pandemic is a social experiment

The pandemic has become a global social experiment, say the authors, whose areas of expertise include psychology, neuroscience, behavioral science, evolutionary biology, medicine, evolutionary social science, and economics. “The (study) insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment,” they suggest.

The economic recession brought on by coronavirus could bring about dramatic changes to long-term mating opportunities and reproductive outcomes. “An evolutionary perspective predicts that women will be reluctant to commit to men lacking financial stability, given the priority they place on this quality in long-term mating. It also predicts that men, in turn, will postpone marriage until they feel they have adequate resources to attract women of adequate or commensurate mate value,” say researchers. 

With children home due to Covid-19, the report says that women are spending more time providing care and schooling, are less available for paying work, and may come to rely more on male partners as breadwinners (Getty Images)

As marriage rates plummet and people postpone reproduction in a virus-plagued world, some nations’ populations will shrink and fall precipitously below “replacement level,” the researchers write. These birth rate drops, in turn, can have cascading social and economic consequences, affecting job opportunities, straining the ability of countries to provide safety nets for their aging populations, and potentially leading to “global economic contraction.”

According to scientists, gender inequality is also increasing. They explain that before the pandemic, women already felt more stressed than men by competing family and job roles. With children at home, that stress seems to lead women to become homemakers and makeshift teachers. “In April of 2020, women lost more jobs than men, in part because more women than men are employed in the hospitality and service industries that lost customers. However, at that same time, women more than men felt more pressured to quit their jobs to manage added household responsibilities of childcare and education, and worried more that declines in their productivity during the pandemic would negatively impact their careers,” the findings state.

Stating that “evolutionary reasoning” predicts women will leave the workplace or sacrifice their productivity more than men will, the authors say this could result in a large-scale backslide toward ‘traditional’ gender norms. With the loss of their economic autonomy, many women will come to rely on male partners as breadwinners, exacerbating the structural problems underlying gender inequality, they argue. 

These factors may shift families toward traditional structures and conceptions of gender — “a shift toward social conservatism, which might have consequences for attitudes about premarital and extramarital sex,” according to the study. It suggests that a consequence of the pandemic could be less tolerance for legal abortion and the rights for sexual minorities who do not align with traditional gender roles. Besides, in a time of economic inequality, many women will sexualize themselves more to compete with one another for desirable men. “There will also be greater competition among men as they strive to secure increasingly rare positions of status and wealth. These changes could contribute to gender norms that emphasize attractiveness for women and status competition for men. For instance, in cities and nations with greater economic inequality, women self-sexualize more in social media posts,” the experts argue. 

People who meet online will often be disappointed when they meet in person. In new relationships, people will miss cues, especially online, and the disappointing result will often be “over idealization” of a potential partner — seeing the person the way you want the person to be rather than the way the person actually is, the study indicates. 

An evolutionary struggle

The research used an evolutionary perspective to highlight the strategies the virus has evolved to use against people, the strategies people possess to combat it and the strategies they need to acquire. Humans today are the products of social and genetic evolution in environments that look very little like our current world. These “evolutionary mismatches” are likely responsible for the frequent lack of alarm in response to the coronavirus crisis, the scientists write.

Humans today are the products of social and genetic evolution in environments that look very little like the current world. These “evolutionary mismatches” are likely responsible for our frequent lack of alarm in response to the pandemic, explain scientists (Getty Images)

Americans, in particular, value individuality and the ability to challenge authority. “This combination does not work especially well in a pandemic. This virus is exposing us and our weaknesses,” explains Seitz. 

Haselton agrees, calling the virus ‘wily’ for its ability to infect us through contact with people we love who seem to be healthy. “Our social features that define much of what it is to be human make us a prime target for viral exploitation. Policies asking us to isolate and distance profoundly affect our families, work lives, relationships, and gender roles,” she says.

All infectious agents, including viruses, are under evolutionary pressure to manipulate the physiology and behavior of their hosts — in this case, people — in ways that enhance their survival and transmission. SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, maybe altering human neural tissue to change people’s behavior, the team says, adding that it may be suppressing feelings of sickness, and perhaps even enhancing social impulses, during times of peak transmissibility before symptoms appear. People who are infected but do not feel sick are more likely to go about their usual activities and come in contact with others whom they might infect.

According to the experts, by understanding how SARS-CoV-2 is evolving and having behavioral and psychological effects on people that enhance its transmission, one will be better able to combat it so it becomes less harmful and less lethal. “In addition to insights that can produce immediate action, the pandemic has provided us with unique opportunities to witness human nature as it unfolds, from changes in patterns of reproduction, shifting social norms, and curiosities of cognition that can warp our recognition of threat. This paper is a call to action in science — both in the application of existing knowledge about viral and human nature and also as an opportunity to make discoveries that would not be possible except when a global social experiment is underway,” the authors conclude.

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