Fertility and family policy in Australia

Research Paper No. 41 – February 2008

You are in an archived section of the AIFS website. Archived publications may be of interest for historical reasons. Because of their age, they may not reflect current research data or AIFS' current research methodologies.

7. A closer look at the importance of partnerships

Partnership formation and relationship stability is a common theme running through the above analysis and it is clear that finding a partner early in life and being happy in this relationship were important to respondents in the FDMP. Relationship breakdown, on the other hand, appeared to be linked with a downward revision of fertility preferences. The following section considers, in the first instance, partnership trends in Australia. It then outlines research that highlights the importance of these trends as factors influencing Australia's current fertility level.

Table 4 shows that partnership rates (covering both partners who are married to each other and those who are cohabiting) have fallen across all age groups (Birrell et al., 2004; Weston, de Vaus, & Qu, 2003).

Table 4. Proportion of men and women who were living with a partner, 1986, 1996 and 2001
20-24 years 20 15 13
25-29 years 53 43 41
30-34 years 71 62 59
35-39 years 77 70 66
40-44 years 79 73 69
45-49 years 79 75 71
20-24 years 39 27 24
25-29 years 67 57 53
30-34 years 77 70 66
35-39 years 80 73 70
40-44 years 79 74 71
45-49 years 78 73 70

Source: Birrell et al. (2004)

The decline in overall partnership rates arises from delays in partnership formation, the increased instability of relationships, and the increased proportions of people who remain continuously single.

Nevertheless, research suggests that most young adults appear to want to find a suitable partner and get married, but they appear to encounter many difficulties in achieving their ambition. These difficulties include: the setting of very high "standards" of suitability (i.e., it was difficult to find someone who could meet their standards); associated caution linked with the instability of relationships; already having young children whose needs were paramount; and lack of time to find a partner, owing to study or work pressures (Qu & Soriano, 2004).

7.1 Changing partnership formation pathways

Changing trends in partnership formation pathways have also contributed to delays in having children. While the proportion of children born outside marriage has increased, most couples wait until they marry before they have children. Around two-thirds of all births occur within marriage, and most of the remainder occur to couples who are cohabiting. However, first marriage rates have declined for all age groups, as shown in Figure 12 for women (the rates for men are very similar).

Figure 12. Age-specific first marriage rate, women

Figure 12. Age-specific first marriage rate, women, described in text.

Source: ABS (2001a, 2003)

7.2 Instability of relationships

The instability of relationships is clearly an important factor affecting opportunities for individuals to have the number of children they hoped to have. In Australia, divorce rates were lower in the late 1980s (between 10.6 and 10.9 per 1000 married men and women), but then climbed fairly steadily from 10.9 in 1990 to 12.9 in 1996. Between 1997 and 2001 they have fluctuated between 12.0 and 13.1 (the rates occurring for 2000 and 2001). However, given the increase in cohabitation, divorce rates are no longer an accurate proxy for relationship instability.

Most first unions now start with cohabitation rather than marriage, with around 80 per cent of recent (first-union) cohabitations ending in either marriage or separation within five years of the start of the relationship. Furthermore, the proportion of such unions that end in separation within five years of the start of the relationship has increased. For example, of those who began cohabiting in the early 1970s, 63 per cent had married and 25 per cent had separated within the first five years of the relationship. Of those who began cohabiting in the early 1990s, 43 per cent had married and 38 per cent had separated within five years (Weston, de Vaus et al., 2003).

In other words, cohabitation was predominantly a prelude to marriage for women born in the early 1950s and appears to have become progressively less so for younger generations. Possibly, young couples today may be more likely to cohabit at an earlier stage in their relationship (when "going steady", rather than when considering marriage). Alternatively, young couples may now embark on cohabitation as a "trial marriage", but hold higher expectations about having their needs fulfilled in the relationship and are more prepared to separate if their needs are not met.

7.3 Links between relationship stability and fertility intentions

The FDMP was a large-scale cross-sectional study that relied on respondents' recollections to assess the dynamics of fertility aspirations. Nevertheless, the importance of partnership circumstances for views on having children was also apparent in a 10-year national follow-up study. The relevant analysis based on this latter study focused on fertility intentions and childbearing outcomes of 783 respondents (425 men and 358 women), all of whom were childless and had been between 18-34 years old in Wave 1 (Qu, Weston, & Kilmartin, 2000). Most respondents intended having children in Wave 1 and, regardless of their relationship status, most of them held these intentions in Wave 2, either having had children or still intending to do so. However, changes of intentions were often linked with personal relationships. Those who had separated from their partners were the most likely to change their minds and decide against having children, followed by those who were continuously single (particularly continuously single people aged 35 years or more). Nevertheless, this change of mind for the continuously single appeared to become more entrenched with age. Such trends may well reflect respondents' adjustment to the fact that time was running out. In this case, there appears to be a blurring of "voluntary" and "involuntary" childlessness.

Qu et al. (2000) also found that intentions to remain childless were less stable than intentions to have children, and were more likely to change for those who were single in 1981 and who subsequently partnered over the next ten years than for respondents who were partnered and remained with the same partner. The extent to which such changes arose from enhanced opportunities to have children or home pressures from the new partner is unclear, although as noted above, some respondents in the FDMP remarked that it was not until they met their partner that they first felt the urge to have children.

Another consequence of partnership instability is that, in new relationships, at least one of the partners may have already had children. The FDMP and other research (Weston & Qu, 2001) suggests that this circumstance leads some people to expect fewer children than they ideally want (including remaining childless), and others to revise their aspirations downward (and sometimes preferring childlessness).

While there is evidence at the individual level that relationship breakdown can have a negative impact upon fertility, the evidence at the macro level is not so clear. Firstly, Castle (2002), using data from 1998 for a number of OECD countries, found a positive correlation between having a higher divorce rate and the fertility rate.16 Castle cited the work of Monnier and de Guibert-Lantoire (1996), which found that countries with higher divorce rates and higher rates of cohabitation tend to have higher fertility rates. As Castle (2002) noted, this apparently counter-intuitive pattern may be a reflection of the fact that countries with higher divorce rates also tend to have higher rates of female labour force participation and gender-equity, factors, as argued above, which are thought to be positively associated with fertility rates.

Secondly, the fertility rate in Australia has been relatively stable over the last 25 years, while the rate of relationship breakdown has increased as the proportion of relationships that are cohabiting increases. Of course, the lack of a clear relationship between the increasing instability of relationships and fertility rates at a macro level may be because other changes that tend to increase fertility rates are happening over the same period. An example of such a change may be the increasing ability for women to combine childbearing with participation in the labour market.

The research described above also highlights the obvious importance of partnership formation for having children. Nevertheless, partnership formation represents a private realm into which Western governments seem reluctant to enter, although Singapore has launched several strategies to help people find a "life-long" partner. While having a partner is almost always a pre-requisite for childbearing, relationship quality is also one of the important factors in fertility decision-making. On the whole, this private area is one in which governments have been willing to help - by introducing "prevention" and "early intervention" measures directed towards promoting partnership quality and stability. Such measures, if successful, may lead some couples who want a child or who want to have more children to achieve their aims. There is evidence that participation in premarital education is associated with higher relationship quality and lower likelihood of divorce. (Stanley, Amato, Johnson, & Markman, 2006). However, the extent to which such positive results are a function of other unmeasured characteristics is unclear,17 and only a minority of couples use such services (see Halford & Simons, 2005).

7.5 Influence of a partner's views

Once in such a relationship, the role of a partner in fertility decision-making is clearly important. Yet, as Thomson (1997) pointed out, most research focuses on individuals rather than couples. In the FDMP, the importance of a partner's views or reproductive history featured in some of the explanations for not wanting or expecting children, for revising family size preferences upward or downward, or for expecting more or fewer children than preferred (Weston et al., 2004).

Furthermore, there was some evidence both in the FDMP and in the analysis of another large-scale dataset (the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey) to suggest that, among couples, the female partner's aspirations about having a child are more influential in shaping the expectations of the male partner than vice versa (Qu, Weston, & Parker, 2003).18

Finally, analysis of HILDA suggests that, among cohabiting couples, where couples disagree about wanting a child, the chance of separation increases if it is the male partner who wants a child, while the chance of marriage increases if it is the female partner who wants a child (Weston, Qu, & de Vaus, 2005).

Clearly, the research suggests that the inability to find a suitable partner or the experience of a relationship breakdown can prevent individuals from achieving their ideal number of children. Such practical circumstances can blur the distinction between voluntary and involuntary childlessness.

16 Interestingly, when data from 1980 was used, the correlation between the divorce rate and fertility rate was negative.

17 For example, those who take part in premarital education may be more likely than others to have lower risks of marriage breakdown to begin with.

18 HILDA is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). HILDA is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (the lead agency), in conjunction with the AIFS and the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).