31 Aug
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The truth about Australia’s birth rate

Contrary to recent optimistic media claims, based on the latest census, that Australia could be heading towards a “baby-boom”, a close and considered analysis of the data by a Melbourne academic demonstrates that this could not be further from the truth.

Overall fertility rates in Australia are continuing to decline, and current cultural trends are likely to keep the fertility rate down well into the future, according to Monash University demographer and sociologist Dr Genevieve Heard.

The recently reported increase in the fertility rate was a jump from 1.73 children per woman in 2001 to 1.83 in 2005, as recorded in the 2006 census data released in June last year.

Despite the fact that this is still well below replacement level — which is 2.1 children per woman over a lifetime — the increase was greeted with jubilation by certain commentators.

Yet, as Dr Heard argues in her paper, “Boom or gloom? Cohort fertility data from the 2006 Census” (People and Place, vol.15, no.3, 2007, produced by Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research), there is an important distinction between the total fertility rate (TFR) and completed cohort fertility.

The TFR is the current total number of children each woman has produced at the time the census data is collated in a particular year. Therefore, if the TFR has increased, it does not necessarily follow that women are having more children over a lifetime, since many of the women the data is based on are young and have not yet finished having children.

Completed cohort fertility, however, refers to the total number of children a woman has produced by the end of her reproductive years. This fertility rate is therefore a much better indicator of whether there is an actual increase in overall fertility. Heard states that “completed cohort fertility provides a better measure of generational replacement”.

In her paper, Heard analyses the latest census data in respect to completed cohort fertility. What she discovers is certainly no cause for celebration. She writes: “The average number of children ever born per woman remains in long-term decline…. This decline is evident in each age group across the reproductive years.”

She points out that, in 2006, women aged 40 to 44 years (an age bracket considered to be the end of their reproductive years) had 2.05 children on average, while the same age group 10 years earlier in 1996 produced an average of 2.23 children, well above replacement level. “In other words, completed fertility continued its long-term decline over the decade to 2006.”

Other concerning trends are increases in the number of women at the end of their reproductive years with only one child or with no children at all, and decreases in the number of women with three children or with four or more children.

In 1981, 9 per cent of women aged 40 to 44 had no children. In 2006, 16 per cent of women in this age group had no children. In 1981, 27 per cent of women aged 40 to 44 had four or more children compared to 2006 when only 11 per cent of women aged 40 to 44 had four or more children.

The strong link between the marriage rate and the fertility rate is also reinforced by the census data. The evidence is clear that women who are married have more children than those who are merely cohabiting. In 2006 married women aged 40 to 44 had on average 2.27 children, while women of the same age in de facto relationships had on average 1.83 children.

Women who are cohabiting are also much more likely to be childless by the end of their reproductive years than women who are married. 23 per cent of cohabiting women aged 40 to 44 were childless in 2006, compared to only 8 per cent of married women.

Heard asserts that “the implication is that motherhood is a near universal outcome for married women…. [T]he fertility gap between wives and partners testifies to the ongoing importance of marriage to Australian fertility.”

Heard acknowledges that the current data confirms the conclusions reached by Monash University’s Dr Bob Birrell and his colleagues, who produced the landmark study Men and Women Apart: The Decline of Partnering in Australia(2004), commissioned by the Australian Family Association (AFA), using census data from 1986, 1996 and 2001.

Birrell concluded that Australia’s low fertility was a consequence of a reduced rate of marriage or partnering, which in turn was caused by the number of males in their prime years not in full time or secure work and therefore unable to marry and form a family.

To rub further salt into the wound, the latest census data also clearly shows that this trend away from marriage is continuing — an ominous development for Australia’s already low fertility rate. The number of married women is decreasing, while the number of women in de facto relationships is increasing.

According to Dr Heard’s study, in 1996, 65 per cent of women aged 30 to 34 years — which is “the peak age for childbearing in Australia” — were married. In 2006, only 56 per cent of women aged 30 to 34 were married. Of the same age group, 9 per cent were in de facto relationships in 1996, and by 2006 this had risen to 15 per cent.

Heard also notes other interesting trends to be gleaned from the latest census data, for example, that women in urban areas on average produce fewer children than those in rural areas, and that we are becoming an increasingly urbanised society.

Moreover, contrary to popular belief, migrant women in Australia, on average, produce fewer children than Australian-born women. In other Western countries, such as England and the United States, the reverse trend is found. She attributes this to “the composition of the migrant intake” in Australia.

Overall, the latest census data does not bode well for Australia’s fertility rate. As Bernard Salt pointed out late last year, in his article “Yankee’s still dandy”, if we are to become a stronger more prosperous nation we need to take a leaf out of the US’s cultural book.

The US currently has a birth rate of 2.1, which is at the replacement level, unlike other countries such as Japan, Russia and Germany which are all under 1.4, and Hong Kong which is under 1.0 (The Australian, November 8, 2007).

Salt argues: “The reason for the high birth rate in the US is both cultural and ethnic: strong Christian values lead to large families, especially among the Latino community, where the birth rate is more than double the white birth rate.” Salt predicts that, based on its current fertility rate, the US will have 95 million people aged 15–35 by 2025, an increase of 11 million.

He adds: “The secret to America’s future success lies in its birth rate. This rate is a reflection of America’s tolerance and inclusion of ethnic (and/or immigrant) groups such as Latinos and the Christian Right.” America’s high birth rate “will enable it to retain superpower status for many decades to come”.

Not only does Australia have to work towards getting young males into full-time work in order to boost the marriage rate, as Birrell’s findings demonstrate, but it also has to consider its cultural tolerance of ethnic and religious sections of the community, such as traditional Christians, who are more inclined to marry and have children, as opposed to merely cohabiting.

Fostering a cultural environment that is more family friendly and conducive to marriage is supported by a report from The Australian Institute of Family Studies released in February this year. The data presented in the report, titled “Fertility and family policy in Australia,” demonstrates that people have not lost the desire to have children and that they would be having more children if their financial and personal circumstances were more favourable.

According to the report the ideal number of children desired by both men and women is two, while three children is the second ideal number. Of men aged 25 – 29, 60.2% said two was their ideal number of children, 21.1% said three and 9.45% said four or more, while only 6.0% said they would prefer no children at all. For women aged 25 – 29, 48.7% would like to have two children, 26.9% would like three and 16.5% would like four or more. Only 4.3% wanted no children at all and 3.7% said one child was their ideal. The figures for men and women aged 30 – 34 are very similar.

These stated ideal numbers of children “applied to men and women in their twenties and thirties regardless of relationship status and educational attainment.” The data indicates overwhelmingly “that most people want children.” Furthermore, “An important finding is that for both men and women the ideal family size was higher than that required for population replacement.” Clearly there are obstacles preventing people in Australia from having the number of children they would like.

When asked what are the most important factors when considering having children, both men and women ranked “can afford to support child” as the primary concern. Other high ranking concerns were: the belief that their partner would be a good parent, the male partner’s job security, the female partner’s age and uncertainty about the future of the relationship.

The report also found that a major negative effect on fertility rates is the reduced rate of partnering. This was attributed to increased incidence of delayed partnering, the increasing instability of relationships and the inability of many people to find a suitable partner. “Most first unions now start with cohabitation rather than marriage…. Furthermore, the proportion of such unions that end in separation within five years of the start of the relationship has increased.” Interestingly, those who expected to be able to have the number of children they desired were men and women who were married. The majority of those who were single or cohabiting reported that they did not expect to achieve their ideal number of children in their lifetime.

While easing the financial burdens on families would encourage those who want children, the evidence also asserts that governments need to do more to foster healthy and stable relationships so men and women feel more confident about bringing children into the world. As rates of cohabitation have increased so have rates of relationship breakdown. Marriage needs to be widely promoted as a great social good and people need to be educated about the many benefits of marriage, including the increased likelihood that they will be able to have their desired number of children if they are in a stable married relationship.

Catherine Sheehan

Catherine Sheehan is a research assistant for the AFA and Victorian secretary.