'Action is needed now': Australia's fertility rate crashes to record low

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Australia's fertility rate has plummeted to the lowest level in recorded history.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has revealed that the country's fertility rate has hit a record low of 1.66 babies per woman in 2019 after steadily decreasing from 1.97 in 2009.

It's the lowest rate since the ABS started its annual 'Births' survey back in 1935.

The statistics come as a 'bit of a shock' to demographer Dr Liz Allen, who believes there are a number of socioeconomic factors contributing to the decline. 

"People are increasingly opting to have child free families, and couples are having fewer children on average," she tells Essential Baby.

"The decline in the average number of children per woman is a reflection of increased participation of women in education and paid employment, and the increasing age at first birth of mothers."

Of concern, she notes, is that survey data suggests that couples aren't achieving their desired family size outcomes.

"The stress of juggling work, life and family is too overwhelming for many," she explains. "Climate change, cost of living, insecure employment, and declining rates of home ownership also contribute."

According to Professor of Demography at the University of Melbourne, Peter McDonald, one of the main reasons behind this dramatic fall is the decline in the number of women under 25 giving birth.

"I think this is related to girls staying in education longer, giving up on the idea of 'I don't have a great future in life so I'll have a baby'," he told Radio 3AW on Wednesday.  "Teenage fertility is now at a very low level, and this is a trend that's been going on around the world."

Photo: Fertility rate in Australia from 1935 to 2019. Australian Bureau of Statistics

Photo: Fertility rate in Australia from 1935 to 2019. Australian Bureau of Statistics

"There were 305,832 registered births in 2019, a decrease of 3.0 per cent from 2018," the ABS said.

Taking a look at the state breakdown, the Northern Territory recorded the highest total fertility rate (1.84 babies per woman), followed by Tasmania (1.79 babies per woman).

Meanwhile, Victoria recorded the lowest total fertility rate with just 1.53 babies per woman.

At present, Australia's fertility rate is well below replacement.

Experts, like Dr Allen, believe it's time for the government to take a 'long hard look' at its policies and how the policy environment makes it difficult to have a family with children. 

"Structural ageing is increasing as a result of below-replacement fertility and there are now insufficient numbers of young people entering the workforce to replace retirees," she asserts.

"Australia's economic future is in trouble. 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."

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has put enormous pressure on young people adn relationship formation - and fertility rates could decline even further. 

"The trouble with fertility rates at around 1.6, 1.5 births per woman is it becomes a social norm and near impossible to reverse," says Dr Allen. 

"Action is needed now. I recommend earnest investments in childcare, housing affordability and climate change."