There are two forces in life pushing me to have another baby.
The first is my three-year-old son. He’s in a kinder class full of children with newborn siblings or whose parents are expecting another child. After his valiant suggestion that my husband could be the one to have a baby this time around, I’ve since bargained him down to a kitten and then, ultimately, a Transformer. Well played, Mum.
The second set of expectations is coming at me direct from the federal government. Buried deep in the 2019-2020 budget papers is an assumption that Australia’s birth rate will rise to a whopping 1.9 babies per woman. Apparently, that’s going to happen within just three short years.
It isn’t a new assumption. Every year since Joe Hockey’s 2015 Intergenerational Report, budget modelling has assumed Australian women are going to embark on a breeding frenzy. It’s a prediction that’s proven patently false.
Australia’s birth rate has been falling for almost a decade, reaching its lowest point in recorded history in 2017 at below 1.75. It’s part of a long-term trend that’s mirrored across the developed world. People are living longer and "settling down" later, women are playing a greater role in the paid workforce, and contraception is effective and readily available. We are having babies at a much older age than we used to and we’re having far fewer of them.
So why does this budget fairy tale persist? The answer is that it’s more than a little bit helpful to the budget bottom line. With an ageing population, Australia’s economy has a decreasing ratio of taxpaying workers to support non-working people. Maintaining growth at strong levels is getting harder when there are fewer people working – and spending – than there used to be.
The reduced immigration program promised by the current government would only worsen the situation. Budget surpluses require a falsehood to counter these negative impacts on growth.
And a mythical birth rate spike provides exactly that.
While Australia’s fertility rate is much lower than it was 30 years ago, we’re in far less dire straits than Japan or South Korea where fertility hovers marginally above 1.1 births per woman. Their governments are pursuing aggressive strategies to reverse the trend but with little sustained impact.
Why Australians are having fewer children is part of a complex social story. There are couples who cite the impact of climate change for not wanting kids, while others want to channel their energy into the needs of a single child rather than several. Women are more likely to find personal fulfilment outside of raising a family than in previous generations. Then there are parents who say one child is enough of an imposition on their leisure time.
The primary consideration, however, is financial. Up-to-date Australian data is limited but in the US (whose birth rate is higher than ours, although in decline) young couples cite financial considerations as four of their top five reasons for not having more children. Most Americans say they’d like to have more kids if it weren’t for the high costs of childcare, their fears for the future of the economy, wanting to be financially stable before starting a family in the first place and simply not being able to afford more than one.
It’s not that the Millennial generation doesn’t want to have children but, rather, economic pressures are holding them back from doing so. If our government wants to lift the birth rate, why aren’t they doing more to ease the financial burden of raising a family?
Alys Gagnon, executive director of lobby group The Parenthood, says the government needs to better assist parents with the high costs of childcare and provide more generous paid parental leave.
“You can't neglect important social policy areas, sit on your hands while there is no improvement, watch women take a hit to their incomes and hope that they're up for having another baby,” she says.
Women’s careers – and their future earnings – take a hit when we have children. The average Australian woman’s salary hits its highest point aged just 31 years old. It’s unsurprising that this number correlates so closely with the average age she gives birth to her first child. Government policies that incentivise a more equal approach to unpaid care and domestic work are required to shift this reality. If having kids hurt women’s wallets less, they might be willing to contemplate another child.
A more equal Australian society could boost the birth rate, and, through it, the economy. If women were better supported to retain their competitiveness in the workforce while having children – and men were incentivised to be more equal partners in the home – fertility might just tick up in the way the budget predicts.
In the meantime, I’ll be saving my part-time working mum pennies for another Transformer. Just in case.