'It's not for lack of wanting kids...' A report on the Fertility Decision Making Project

Research Report No. 11 – January 2005

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Executive summary

Australia's total fertility rate is at an all time low (1.75 babies per woman) and is wellbelow replacement level (2.1), resulting in a population that is ageing and one thatmay shrink if the fertility rate falls much further. This has sparked much publicdebate about the social and economic consequences for Australia. While increasingimmigration levels has been proposed as one possible solution, research shows thatsuch a strategy has limited ability to slow down population ageing.

Most governments in countries with similar or lower fertility rates than in Australiaare focusing on the need to support families having children. The governmentin Australia is no exception. Chapter One of this report explains trends in the totalfertility rate and summarises some of the most important Australian research inthis area.

To help lift the fertility rate or at least keep it stable at its current level, publicpolicies could well provide mechanisms for supporting the drivers that help couplesto achieve their desired family size, and trying to overcome the drivers that operateas barriers to having children. To develop appropriate policies, a strong evidencebaseis required - one that not only indicates who is having children and who isnot, but also enhances an understanding of factors that people consider importantwhen they are contemplating the issue of having a child or more children.

"Getting inside people's heads" to see how they experience the decision-makingpath towards or away from children is not something that has been focused onmuch in the past. The Fertility Decision Making Project helps fill this gap and thisreport provides the first findings from the survey. The Office for Womencontributed funding to the Australian Institute of Family Studies to conduct anational random survey of men and women aged between 20 and 39 years thatfocused on fertility decision making. This telephone survey resulted in an achievedsample of 3,201 respondents (1,250 men and 1,951 women). There was anadditional mail-out questionnaire to partners of respondents leading to 313 selfcompletedquestionnaires. Fieldwork commenced in December 2003 and wascompleted in March 2004. Chapter Two outlines the design and sample of theFertility Decision Making Project, and Chapter Three examines the sample accordingto the key variables of age, gender, relationship status, parenting status, educationallevel and employment status.

Chapter Four examines various fertility-related aspirations held by men andwomen, and the relationship between these aspirations and the above-mentionedkey variables. Most of the childless respondents reported that they definitelywanted children, and most respondents with one child wanted a second. Althoughthose in their twenties who had not had children were more likely than their oldercounterparts to 'definitely' want to have a child, this was the single most commonresponse even for those in their late thirties who did not have children. Marriedrespondents without children were the most likely of the relationship status groupsto 'definitely' want to have a child. This chapter also shows that the strongestpreference, in terms of ideal family size, was for two children. This preferencepersisted regardless of relationship status.

Chapter Five discusses fertility expectations and finds that while the patterns ofexpectations largely match those derived for aspirations, expectations 'fall off' withage (particularly for women) and where the respondent is not married. Childlessmen in their twenties and men with lower levels of education were less likely thanthose men with a degree or pursuing degrees to expect to have a family.

Chapter Six looks at the link between expectations and aspirations at the individuallevel to further explore the association between these two key concepts. Theaverage family size that men and women wanted to achieve is above the'replacement' level of 2.1 children per woman. However, women's average expectedfamily size falls close to this 'replacement' level and that for men is close toAustralia's current total fertility rate (1.75). Around one third of men and womenexpected to have fewer children than they ideally wanted.

Chapter Seven explores the issues that are considered important in fertilitydecisions. Both men and women were particularly likely to emphasise the ability tosupport a child financially as the most important issue when considering havingchildren. Also high on the agenda for most respondents was whether or not eachpartner would make a good parent. The male partner's job security was anothercommon concern. The emotional benefits to respondents of having children werealso high on the list of issues feeding into the process of fertility decision making.

The main findings from the study show that it is not for lack of people wantingchildren that our fertility rate is low. The diversity of lifestyles and generalaspirations these days means that there is a fair degree of variance in terms of howpriorities across the life course are worked out at the individual level, and 'havingkids', while a priority, often comes after having met some other priorities, or 'preconditions'.

In terms of policy development, the key findings provided in this report highlightsome of the most important issues that have been raised via this initial analysis of thesurvey data. The analysis suggests that while most people want to have children, themost common pre-conditions people nominate for having them are a secure, stableand adequate partner, and a secure, stable and adequate income stream. It seems thatthese pre-conditions are becoming further out of reach for people in their twenties.One policy question that could be posed is: "What supports need to be in place tohelp people meet these pre-conditions in their twenties?"

Key findings

  • Regardless of age, the most popular "ideal number of children" that people between the ages of 20 and 39 reported wanting to have was two. The second most popular ideal number of children was three. The average ideal family size was 2.4 children for men and 2.5 children for women.
  • On average, the number of children that people expected to have was less than their ideal number of children. While most people expected to meet their ideal family size, a sizeable proportion of people expected to have fewer children than they would ideally like. Around one third of men and women reported that they expected to achieve fewer children than they would ideally like, while only 6 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women thought they would have more children than they wanted.
  • Two thirds of male respondents and 41 per cent of female respondents were childless, but only 7 to 8 per cent of men and women said they definitely did not want children. Reasons for not wanting children included practical considerations (such as age, lack of a partner, health and fecundity issues); a dislike of children; work, financial and lifestyle choices; concerns about being a good parent; the belief that the world is not good for children; and concerns about overpopulation.
  • Women in their twenties and thirties with lower levels of education were not generally more likely than women with higher levels of education to want to have children but they were more likely to have had children.
  • Regardless of age, men with lower levels of education were more likely than men with higher levels of education to have fathered children. Of men in their thirties, those with no post-school qualifications were less likely than other men to be currently partnered.
  • Married people in their twenties and thirties were more likely to have or to want children than both cohabiting and single people.
  • Regardless of age, women in full-time work were less likely than women in either part-time or no paid work to have children. Within the 30-39 years age category, these women were also less likely to have achieved their ideal number of children.
  • For most people, being childless or having fewer children than they ideally would like is not from a lack of wanting children. Taken together, the findings from this project can be interpreted as showing that being in a secure, stable and adequate relationship with a partner and having a secure, stable and adequate income stream are critical pre-conditions for most people to have a child or to have more children. Of course, people vary in terms of what they consider 'secure, stable and adequate' in terms of both a partner, and an income stream.