Australia: A ‘Baby Drought’ Down Under?

In 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a headline that trumpeted the fact that Australia’s fertility rate had fallen to its lowest level in 10 years, resulting in a so-called ‘baby drought’.

The national fertility rate of 1.8 children per women had dropped from 1.88 children in 2014, and even further from the 2.0 children per woman recorded from 2007 to 2010. That mini-peak was attributed in part to a boom in the mining industry.

Since then, though, things have been following a downward trajectory, even though the government introduced paid parental leave measures in the first part of 2011.

Like other Western countries, such as Germany, Australia’s declining birth rate portends trouble for the country’s aging population, which the Australian Institute of Family Studies reported in 2008 wasn’t being replaced at a rate required to sustain itself.

When a nation’s fertility rates drop over a period of time, there aren’t enough younger workers to support the needs of older, retired people. This situation takes time to materialize, of course, but the effects also require as much if not more time to remedy.

Apart from the “younger-supporting-older” conundrum that typically accompanies a long-term drop in fertility rates, other factors impact the makeup of Australian society. A major one: Middle children are disappearing as South Australian fertility rates decline, which could result in a loss of some of the country’s more entrepreneurial citizens.

An August 2018 report from News.com.au says that middle children – generally considered to be free-spirited, easy-going, and very sociable – have been in alarmingly short supply.

In South Australia, for example, the number of children born in the 1950s sat at just under 4.0 per woman, dropping to below 3.0 in the 1970s. By 2015, however, just 14 per cent of South Australian women had given birth to a third child, while only 4.8 per cent had had their fourth.

Michael Grose, an author and director of Parenting Ideas, told the newspaper that more than half of Australian families report having two or fewer children today. This, he says, has resulted in “micro-families” that are partially attributable to a rising cost of living as well as parents who wait until later in life to start families.

One danger, Grose warns, is that “[w]ithout middle borns…we might lose our spark”. And possibly more: A vibrant middle-aged workforce is needed to support government entitlements not simply for the old, but also those intended to help the young.

What’s to be done, though, if Aussies currently don’t seem inclined to have more children? Or is that really the case?

Maybe not. Recently released information from the 2017 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey indicates that Australians do want more children – 1.5 more, say Australian women and men who’ve reached the age of 40.

In taking a closer look at those numbers, a compelling trend begins to emerge: By age 20, 87.7 per cent of men report not yet having had the number of children they’d like – a figure that predictably drops as low as 51.1 per cent as the men age. Until, that is, they turn 44, when the figure sharply rises to 74.7 per cent.

Corresponding percentages for women follow a similar trendline, with 79.8 per cent wanting more children at age 20, dropping to a low of 45.7 per cent years later, and then rising to 86 per cent at age 40.

Still, economic realities hold considerable sway over Australians’ choices to increase family size. So does what’s considered the definition of being a “good parent” – as in, are parents spending enough time with their children to rear them properly and securely, and if not, why have more?

The Conversation perfectly captured the essence of this ongoing debate by observing, “While some have long identified the incompatibility of work and family demands, one cannot fully understand the intense time demands children bring until your two-year-old has spilled an entire box of Rice Bubbles on the floor exactly when you are leaving for work.”

At the end of the day, though, Australians will need to come to grips with sustaining a national population through population growth, whether through immigration or by intentionally planning to have more children.

While government officials work on the problem, Australian couples seem to have already indicated their preference for a solution, both for their own interests as well as the country’s – one that should include proactively storing assets for optimal use.