Australia’s fertility rate is at a record low. This expert says it’s a disaster waiting to happen – ABC News

It was a running gag early in the pandemic: all the COVIDbabies that would be conceived while couples are holed up at home together with little to do but bake sourdough and procreate!

And yet, nearly two years later, we aren't celebrating a baby boom, despite birth spikes in certain places in Australia.

"A baby boom is measured by fertility rates, not the number of births," ANU demographer Liz Allen explains.

Fertility rates indicate the average lifetime number of births per woman, based on age-specific rates of birth.

"A baby boom requires fertility rates to substantially exceed trend estimates. It's very unlikely Australia will ever see a baby boom again, let alone now during a health and economic crisis like COVID-19," Dr Allen says.

With a focus on international politics and business, Geraldine Doogue talks to expert commentators about the things that matter to Australians.

Australia's not alone. It's following a global trend, with other countries including the UK and US, Italy, Japan and South Korea thatare also experiencing significant fertility decline.

Nonetheless it is a major cause for concern.

"Australia's birth rate continues to be below what is considered necessary for the population to replace itself," Dr Allen explains.

She argues that action is required to stem the trend. If we continue down this road, she says, "Australia's economic future is in trouble".

Dr Allen says the decline in the average number of children per woman is a result of increased education and paid employment for women. Women are starting families later and consequentlyhaving fewer children, and more people are choosing to be child-free.

Unsplash: Toa Heftiba

In Australia, where there's been a long-term downward trend in fertility rates, there was a record low fertility rate of 1.66 babies per woman in 2019. A federal government report into Australia's future fertility rate projects a drop to 1.59 in 2021.

"To put it into context, for the population to remain stable without immigration, you need a fertility rate per adult woman over her child birthing yearsto be about 2.1. That accounts for the natural infertility in the population," Patrick Parkinson, family law specialist at the University of Queensland, tells ABC RN's Saturday Extra.

"So 1.66 doesn't sound like it's much lower than that but over 50 years, over 80 years or so, that leads to a catastrophic fall in the population."

Couple that with the fact that the number of people immigrating to Australia is currently sitting at zero, and significant societal changes begin to look inevitable.

For the first time in more than 100 years, Australia's population is shrinking, and it's likely to have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for the economy and society.

Dr Allen says if Australia's fertility rate were to fall to 1.6 or 1.5 births per woman, "we're in deep strife".

"Once fertility rates decline this low, it's extremely hard to increase them. They become entrenched Population decline then becomes a real potential."

Again, Australia is not alone here.

Sophie McBain, a London-based special correspondent at the New Statesman magazine, has covered global fertility rates in her work.

She says recent predictions in medical journal The Lancet based on current fertility trends show that by the year 2100, 23 countries, including Japan, Thailand and Spain, would halve their populations, while China's population was forecasted to decline by 48 per cent.

A low fertility rate isn't a problem "in its own right", Dr Allen says. However, combined with an aging population, it equates to "economic uncertainty", posing the question as to how Australia can remain economically strong with fewer people to contribute to "government coffers".

The burden of that question weighs disproportionately on young people, who "could potentially see their standard of living continue to be lower than generations previously", shesays.

"Young people are really getting a raw deal," Dr Allen says.

"The nation wants young people to be the economic lifeline ensuring the country's future but at the same time these pressures, added to existing generational inequalities, might mean that young generations won't accomplish the things we take for granted: secure housing, secure careersand family."

Unsplash: Kelly Sikkema

COVID-19 has only added to the burden young people are feeling.

Ms McBain says the fertility decline during COVID, coupled with other statistics, such as a record number of abortions in England and Wales last year, point to the fact that in unstable times, the decision to have children is a difficult one to make.

Some women have reported short-term changes in their menstrual cycle following COVID vaccination, but drawing a connection between the two is far fromstraightforward.

She says the pandemic has made many people "feel that they would be unable to support a child or that they don't want a child".

"For me, that seemed like a very harrowing idea. It wasn't just that young people weren't having babies because they weren't having sex, it was that they really didn't feel as though they could have children," Ms McBain says.

Young people have watched friends struggle with parenting during lockdowns; they've seen others denied a birthing support partner at hospital.They're just some of the factors contributing to a climate of uncertainty, which can impact decisions about starting a family.

"You feel insecure in your employment, you're not sure what the world's going to look like in five years' time, you don't know whether you're going to be able to afford to buy a property [or] will be inexpensive short-term rental accommodation," she says.

Concerns such as these take a toll. "When people are thinking about having a family, they tend to really value stability. They want to know that they'll be able to provide for their child in five, ten years' time," Ms McBain says.

Dr Allen says choosing to have fewer or no children in itself is not problematic.

It's when people are forced into a situation by circumstance that is cause for concern.

A growing number of Australians are opting for 'natural' contraception methods, including fertility awareness. Here's what you need to know.

Dr Allen says it's "truly troubling" that Australian data suggests the stresses of juggling work, life and family are "too overwhelming" and that, even before COVID-19, adults weren't having the number of children they desired.

Climate change, cost of living, insecure employment, inaccessible and unaffordable childcare, unattainable home ownership and harmful gender norms also contribute, she says.

She argues more needs to be done and that these "structural issues must be addressed by governments and workplaces" if we are to see any positive change.

Professor Parkinson says that there's another aspect to the decline in fertility rates, namely a "decline in the stability of relationships".

He doesn't discount concerns such ashow to bring in an income or afford a home are serious ones for those considering a family. However he argues that "fewer people are maintaining stable relationships and that has a direct impact on fertility".

"Because if your relationship breaks off after three years, and you haven't had the chance to have had a child,or you've only had one childand you wanted two or three the window of fertility then closes much more quickly than it would otherwise have done."

Ms McBain says there's also been a societal shift whereby "the idea of being child-free by choice is a much less unusual one nowadays".

She argues that it's decreasingly the case that people feel that "having children is the most important goal in their lifeor the most rewarding thing they could do with their time".

"They don't need a child to feel complete," she says.

Dr Allen goes even further. She says it is the structural issues at playthat are having a powerful impact on families.

She wants the Australian government to take more decisive action to shift a worrying trend.

"Young people will suffer an increasing burden, carrying the economic pressures of generations past while trying to carve out a place in the world of their own," she says. "Young people should be worried about this and can be rightly angry.

"Ultimately, the government needs to take a long hard look at its policies and how the policy environment makes it difficult to have a family with children."

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Australia's fertility rate is at a record low. This expert says it's a disaster waiting to happen - ABC News

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