‘No fertility crisis’ in Australia

Australia seems to have recovered from a period of declining birth rates and the government has no need to encourage couples to have more children, according to the country’s Productivity Commission. More babies were born in Australia last year than in any other year -- more than 285,000 -- bringing the country’s birth rate to around 1.93, its highest level since the early 1980s. In a report issued this week the commission says Australia’s fertility rate may have stabilised at 1.75 to 1.9 babies per woman. “Overall, Australia appears to be in a safe zone of fertility, despite fertility levels being below replacement levels," it says, adding, “There is no fertility crisis.”

As the country’s birth rate declined to 1.73 in 2001 there were fears about a smaller workforce with a burgeoning older population to support. In 2004 the government introduced a baby bonus, a one-off payment that now stands at $5000, and other family welfare measures including tax benefits have been introduced. The stated intention was not to boost fertility but to provide support for families, and the Productivity Commission says they have had only a “modest” affect on fertility rates anyway. Other important factors are:

*good economic times and more part-time jobs, making it easier for women to leave and re-enter the job market;

* more flexible work arrangements allowing women to combine work and childrearing.

But the biggest factor in the baby boom, says the commission, is “recuperation” -- delayed childbearing by women in their 30s. But there is also an “anticipation” effect from women having babies sooner because of good economic times, and a “quantum” effect from some simply having more than the average birth rate would have predicted. Today’s young women are saying they expect to have more babies over their lifetime.

They would to have a lot more than almost two each, of course, to prevent the continued ageing of the population -- which results not only from lower fertility but from longer lifespans -- and the commission takes the view that Australia should not even try to do this. Its message is that fertility is quite high enough and that any further increase would have minimal effects on population ageing but may hurt the economy. It would do this by shifting women out of the workforce, thus depressing the labour supply and reducing the taxation base, and by costing the government more in family support and other services. On the other hand immigration can be expected to compensate for below replacement fertility.

But whether Australia is “fertile enough now, thank you” depends on philosophy and values more than on economic calculations. The commission, for example, talks about “ultimate limits to population growth” in Australia. It certainly believes the government should have a fertility policy, but this would be geared to a “target population” of, say, 40 million. The commission is soon to deliver a report on whether the nation should adopt paid maternity leave; it will be interesting to see how it handles this issue. ~ Recent Trends in Australian Fertility, Australian Productivity Commission, August 5 


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