The Australian Bureau of Statistics has released a set of figures which should frighten all of us. The figures, based on recent trends, suggest that more than one in four girls are likely to go through life childless. It estimates that 28 per cent of women will forgo having children unless present trends are reversed.

A 1994 study found the following reasons why women are choosing against children:
1. Unwillingness to invest time or money in raising children.
2. Lack of emotional feelings for children.
3. Concern about over-population.
4. The desire to pursue a career without interruption.

Pro-family forces have longed warned about declining fertility rates and the erosion of parenthood. These figures merely confirm a trend that extends back to 1961, when fertility peaked (just before the arrival of the pill in Australia). But it is not just pro-family forces that are concerned about these trends. Leslie Cannold, of Melbourne University’s Centre for Philosophy and Public Issues is one such voice. Writing in the March 16 Melbourne Age, she wrote of "The population debate we have to have". It was not the migration debate she was concerned about, but the steady erosion of child birth.

She states what groups like the Australian Family Association have claimed for years: we are facing a birth dearth, to use Ben Wattenberg’s phrase. Most Western societies are just not keeping up with replacement levels, i.e., 2.1 children per woman. In Australia the fertility rate has fallen to 1.75. Now if this is just a matter of choice, writes Cannold, then no big deal. If men and women don’t want children or want fewer children, so be it. But she reminds us that the evidence - as meagre as it is - suggests otherwise:

"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". Pro-family lobbyists couldn’t have put it better.

And that is exactly the problem we face. Leslie Cannold closes her piece by urging our politicians to "canvas all the causes and cures for our declining numbers". Well, the causes are not hard to come by. One hundred thousand aborted babies each year does not help matters much. Nor do government policies which tend to favour two income families and penalise one income families. Certain feminist agendas which try to encourage women to choose careers over families must also share some of the blame. And population control ‘experts’ who tell us Australia is grossly over-populated have also contributed to the current problem.

Each of these causes have been addressed at length by concerned pro-family advocates. Consider just one in more detail. The large increase in the number of women in the paid work force is certainly one very important contributing factor to the decline in births. According to ABS figures, women’s labour force participation rate was 37% in 1966. In 1997 that figure rose to over 53%. While much of this increase is in the area of part-time and casual work, it reflects a major change in social structure. As a result, more and more women are either putting off child birth altogether, or are delaying it considerably.

A few figures bear this out. In 1990 there were 262,648 registered births. In 1997 this number fell to 251,842. And in 1977, the median age of childbearing was 26.1 years. In 1997 it had increased to 29.4 years. The clarion call of feminism to convince women that career is more important than family is part of the cause of these trends. Popular culture’s disdain and lampooning of marriage and family is another factor. So too are government policies which in effect reward two income families and penalise those who forgo income to spend more time with children.

There are many reasons why we should be concerned about the birth dearth. One major reason is the rise of the elderly population coupled with the decrease in the younger generation. Put crassly, who’s going to pay the bills? Benefits and payments to the elderly have to come from somewhere. And with a shrinking tax base of young income earners, how are we going to fund the needs of our elderly population?

A few figures illustrate my point. In 1901 there were 151,000 people aged 65 years and over living in Australia, comprising 4% of the total population. In 1998 this number grew to 2.3 million, or 12% of the population. By 2050 this figure is expected mushroom to over 6 million (25%). Governments need to think hard and fast how we are going to financially support this growing pool of elderly Australians.

Thus the issue of declining birth rates affects us all. It is therefore very encouraging to see the likes of Leslie Cannold raise these important issues. Dealing with the problems is another matter however. The solutions to these problems are multifaceted and difficult. Whether our leaders have the determination to make necessary changes is the real question.

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