The population debate we have to have

It’s easier to talk about immigration than about why we’re having fewer children.

LAST week the Prime Minister reopened the debate about Australia’s population. After years of Hanson-inspired silence, there are even whispers of a bipartisan policy approach.

Debates in Australia about population policy typically disintegrate into haggling about migration numbers, and this time was no different. Indeed, some media outlets didn’t even bother to report Howard’s interest in a comprehensive debate about population, while others gave only a one-line mention to his open mind on population. Instead, the media focused on the Government’s policy shift on migrant numbers.

Population is not a synonym for migration, so why do politicians and the media constantly equate the two? More importantly, who loses out when they do?

The size of our population is primarily determined by how many babies we have. Over the past decade, Australia’s fertility rate has dropped precipitously. Australian woman averaged 1.9 babies at the start of the 1990s; by the end of the decade the figure was 1.75.

What this means is that each year Australians move further away from bringing enough children into the world – around 2.1 per woman – to replace the number of Australians dying.

In this, we are far from alone. Few Western countries have fertility levels that are at or above replacement levels.

Yet despite sporadic fretting about declining fertility in the Western world – an Italian demographer recently predicted the demise of the Italian people unless that country was able to halt the fall in its fertility rate – no committees are being assembled and research commissioned to investigate the problem and propose policy solutions.

One reason is the difficulty in even gaining agreement that falling population is a problem. Some contend, among them the New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, that our current numbers are overwhelming our fragile ecosystem and limited infrastructure.

Those in favor of population growth tend to be economic rationalists convinced that greater numbers will fuel economic prosperity and lift our international standing. In addition, patriarchal societies have long seen child-bearing as a woman’s patriotic duty. As Jeff Kennett discovered, this can make any mention of the issue politically risky.

If declining fertility represented the desire of increasing numbers of women and men to have fewer children or no children at all, I’d fully support the current do-nothing-and-for-God’s-sake-don’t-talk-about-it approach.

However, what little data is available suggests that the steady decline in Australia’s birthrate since 1961 is evidence of the ever-widening gap between the number of children we want, and the number of children we have.

The problem with falling population, in other words, is that it represents an erosion of women’s and men’s freedom to embrace parenthood.

For instance, one study found that tertiary-educated Australian women in their 20s intended to have an average of 2.3 children each, but as they moved into their 30s, their expectations dropped sharply. At current rates, these women are not even likely to meet their lowered fertility expectations.

Less educated women, while wanting on average just under two children each, come much closer to having the number they want. However, this may be about to change. New figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies show that while fertility rates are dropping for all women, those of less educated women with poorer job prospects are declining quickest of all. What all this means is that the longstanding relationship in developing countries between higher rates of female education and lower rates of fertility doesn’t explain fertility patterns in the developed world. It seems higher education and employment levels don’t lead women to want fewer children, but to have fewer than they want.

The reasons for this are not hard to guess. Getting educated takes time, and leads women to put off having children. Getting established in a career also takes time, and leads women to delay even longer. Getting so established at work that a woman is able to negotiate a family-friendly work arrangement that won’t bankrupt her, turn her hair grey or put her on the mummy track could conceivably – in a time of unequal opportunity and pay – take a lifetime.

The limited lifespan of female fertility means such delays may result in a woman having fewer children than she intended, or no children at all.

The upshot of all this is that the incompatibility of child-bearing and child-rearing with the demands of the lean and mean modern-day workforce – and the aggravation of that incompatibility by sex discrimination – is an issue that bears directly on the population question. No wonder politicians are happy to restrict debates on population to questions of immigration. Debates on the causes of declining fertility could make arguments about migrant numbers look like fun.

But curtailment of this important debate comes at a high cost for present and potential parents and children. So, as our political leaders gear up for the annual carry-on about migrant numbers, prospective and actual parents need to ensure their elected representatives canvass all the causes and cures for our declining numbers.

The wellbeing of our families – and the existence of those we hope to have – depends on it.