Recent trends in Australian fertility

5 Aug 2008

Births in Australia are at an historical high – with around 285 000 babies born in 2007. This corresponds to an estimated total fertility rate of 1.93 babies per woman, the highest since the early 1980s. This is not a one-off event as fertility rates have been generally rising for the last 6 years. Overall, the evidence suggests that after its long downward trend after the Second World War, Australia's fertility rate may have stabilised at around 1.75 to 1.9 babies per woman.

Much of the recent increase in the fertility rate is likely to reflect the fact that over the last few decades, younger women postponed childbearing and many are now having these postponed babies (so-called 'recuperation'). This has shown up as higher fertility rates for older women. However, some of the increase is also likely to be due to a 'quantum' effect – an increase in the number of babies women will ultimately have over their lifetimes. For example, today's young women say they are expecting to have more babies over their lifetime than those five years ago.

Rising fertility reflects several factors:

• Buoyant economic conditions and greater access to part-time jobs have reduced the financial risks associated with childbearing and lowered the costs associated with exiting and re-entering the labour market.

• With more flexible work arrangements, women today are more able to combine participation in the labour force with childrearing roles.

• A recent increase in the generosity of family benefits (such as family tax benefit A and the 'baby bonus'), though not targeted at fertility, is also likely to have played a part. However, that role has probably only been a modest one. Family policies are more powerful in providing income support, improving child and parental welfare, and serving other social goals than in affecting fertility rates.

Overall, Australia appears to be in a 'safe zone' of fertility, despite fertility levels being below replacement levels. There is no fertility crisis. Australia's population should continue to grow at one of the highest rates in the developed world because of migrant inflows. Feasibly attainable increases in fertility would not significantly allay ageing of the population, nor address its fiscal and labour market challenges.

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