Fertility and family policy in Australia

Research Paper No. 41 – February 2008

6. Views about having children

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has undertaken considerable research into the decisions individuals make about having children - the "micro-level" dynamics of their everyday choices. The broad aim of this research program is to enhance understanding of the reasons underlying the fertility decisions of men and women in their key childbearing years, both as individuals and couples. Selected findings from this research that relate to the relevance of some of the above-mentioned explanations are outlined below.

The Institute's research, along with that undertaken elsewhere in Australia (Evans & Kelley. 1999; McDonald, 2002), clearly suggests that most people want to have children. In this section, the following issues are examined: the desire for children; current, ideal and expected family sizes; perceived stability of preferences; and issues men and women consider to be important when thinking about having or not having children.

6.1 The desire for children

There is little evidence from the Institute's research that individualism is an important explanation for Australia's below-replacement-level TFR. According to the Fertility Decision Making Project (FDMP), a national survey of 3,201 men and women aged 20-39 years undertaken in 2004, two-child families were the most popular, followed by three-child families (Weston, Qu, Parker, & Alexander, 2004).13 A family of four or more children appeared to be more popular than no children or only one child (taken separately). In fact, each of these latter two alternatives (taken separately) was considered to be ideal by less than 10 per cent of men and women in four age groups (Table 2). The popularity of an ideal of having two children, followed by three, then four or more, applied to men and women in their twenties and thirties regardless of relationship status and educational attainment.

Table 2. Ideal number of children by age, Australia
20-24 years
(Per cent)
25-29 years
(Per cent)
30-34 years
(Per cent)
35-39 years
(Per cent)
None 4.5 6.0 5.8 8.4
One 4.5 3.3 5.2 7.3
Two 55.8 60.2 55.4 47.1
Three 24.3 21.1 19.7 23.8
Four or more 11.0 9.4 13.8 13.4
Total 100.1 100.0 99.9 100.0
Number of respondents 292 299 325 261
None 4.1 4.3 3.1 3.9
One 3.8 3.7 7.3 9.1
Two 48.8 48.7 45.4 43.8
Three 31.1 26.9 25.3 25.7
Four or more 12.3 16.5 18.9 17.5
Total 100.1 100.1 100.0 100.0
Number of respondents 367 491 549 463

Source: Weston et al. (2004)

These proportions were based on all men and women in each age group, including those who were already parents. Two-child families also represented the most common ideal family size of childless respondents in the four age groups (applying to 51 to 63 per cent of men and 44 to 56 per cent of women). While three-child families were the second most common preference for childless respondents under 35 years old (15 to 24 per cent of men and 18 to 29 per cent of women), remaining childless was the second most commonly mentioned ideal for those in their late thirties (21 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women).

In fact, among the childless, the ideal of having no children or one child became progressively more popular with advancing age, while having three or more children became less popular. For example, 24 per cent of childless women in their late thirties ideally wanted to remain childless, compared with only 5 per cent of childless women in their early twenties.

While to some extent these results reflect the fact that those approaching their forties would include an increased concentration of people who never wanted children, there was also evidence from the FDMP and in previous research (Weston & Qu 2001), that limited opportunities for having a child led some childless people to adjust to their circumstances by modifying their fertility preferences to be consistent with reality. For example, some childless respondents' reasons for their ideal of being childless included being single or having a partner who already had children, having postponed having a child and now feeling too old to cope with raising children, or fecundity problems experienced by themselves or their partner. In other words, preferences tended to be constrained by circumstance.14

6.2 Current, ideal and expected family sizes

Figures 8 and 9, which are based on the FDMP, show the averages (means) derived for ideal, expected and actual family size for men and women respectively in their early and late twenties and thirties. For each gender taken separately, the average ideal family sizes were similar across the four age groups (men: 2.3-2.4 children; women: 2.5-2.6 children), as were the average expected family sizes (men: 1.7-1.8 children; women: 2.1 children), with ideal family size being higher than expected family size. Women's average ideal and expected family sizes were slightly higher than those for men, although the ideal family size of men and women in their early twenties was very similar.

It is noteworthy that the average number of children that men and women, in their late thirties actually had, is below the average expected family size (men: 1.3 versus 1.8; women: 1.8 versus 2.1). Given that the men tended to be two or three years older than their partner, it is not surprising that the gap between the actual and expected number of children was greater for men than women. The gap would narrow further as some men and women in their late thirties will have a child or more children. Nevertheless, even in their late thirties, neither the women nor the men were expecting to have the number of children they said they ideally wanted.

Figure 8. Men: current, expected and preferred number of children

Figure 8. Men: current, expected and preferred number of children, described in text.

Source: Weston et al. (2004)

Figure 9. Women: current, expected and preferred number of children

Figure 9. Women: current, expected and preferred number of children, described in text.

Source: Weston et al. (2004)

Men and women in their thirties, regardless of whether they were married, single or cohabiting, had higher average ideal family sizes than they expected to actually have15. The same applied to patterns of averages for those in the three educational status groups. Of each of these different groups, the greatest discrepancy between average ideals and expectations occurred for men and women who were single (men: 2.3 versus 1.4; women: 2.4 versus 1.7), while the smallest discrepancy occurred for men and women who were married (men: 2.5 versus 2.3; women: 2.7 versus 2.4).

It is important to note, however, that between 60 and 65 per cent of men and women in the four age groups expected to have (or already had) the number of children they considered ideal - although, as noted above, there was evidence that ideals tended to be limited by perceived opportunities. Just over 30 per cent of men in their twenties and 32 to 41 per cent of men in their thirties believed that they would have fewer children than they considered ideal - a situation that applied to 29 to 37 per cent of women in their twenties and 30 to 34 per cent of women in their thirties. No more than 10 per cent in any group expected to have more children than they considered ideal.

The proportion of respondents expecting to achieve their ideal was strongly related to relationship status for men and women in their twenties and thirties (taken separately). Those most likely to expect to achieve their ideal family size were married men and women in their twenties and thirties, and cohabiting women in their twenties (68 to 70 per cent), while those least likely to expect this were single men and women in their thirties. Indeed, a slightly higher proportion of these older single men felt that they would "underachieve" rather than achieve their preference (50 per cent versus 45 per cent), while the opposite applied for women in their thirties (45 per cent versus 52 per cent).

Whatever the family size ideals held by men and women, most respondents in each educational status group indicated that they expected to achieve (or had achieved) their ideal family size. Nevertheless, men in their thirties who neither had, nor were pursuing, post-school qualifications, were less likely than other men to expect to achieve their ideal family size (41 per cent versus 32-34 per cent). Men in their thirties in the lowest educational status group were also less likely than other men of the same age to be partnered, although single men in the lowest educational status group were more likely to have children than other single men. These trends are generally consistent with the arguments by Birrell, Rapson, and Hourigan (2004) that men with poor financial prospects are less likely than other men to be able to have and raise children in a secure relationship.

6.3 Perceived stability of preferences

In the FDMP, those who were 23 years or older were asked to recall how many children they wanted when they were 20 years old. While most respondents indicated no change in preferences, across all age groups, those who reported a change in views were more likely to indicate a conversion from not wanting a child to wanting a child (a "positive conversion") rather than the reverse (a "negative conversion"). Positive conversions were indicated by 22 to 24 per cent of all men and by 15 to 18 per cent of all women. Negative conversions, on the other hand, were indicated by no more than 5 per cent of respondents in any group.

Among the majority who wanted children at age 20, family size preferences were more likely to be revised downwards than upwards - except for men in their twenties (Figure 10 and Figure 11). An upward revision was reported by 13-17 per cent of men and women in each age group, while the tendency to revise family size preferences downwards appeared to increase with increasing age. For instance, a revision downwards was indicated by 20 per cent of men in their late twenties and by 32 per cent of men in their late thirties. For women, the proportions were 21 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. Nevertheless, with the exception of women in their late thirties, more than half the respondents indicated no change in desired family size.

Figure 10. Men at age 20 who wanted to have a child: number of children wanted now (2004) and then (at age 20) by current age

Figure 10. Men at age 20 who wanted to have a child: number of children wanted now (2004) and then (at age 20) by current age, described in text.

Source: Qu and Weston (2004)

Figure 11. Women at age 20 who wanted to have a child: number of children wanted now (2004) and then (at age 20) by current age

Figure 11. Women at age 20 who wanted to have a child: number of children wanted now (2004) and then (at age 20) by current age, described in text.

Source: Qu and Weston (2004)

Interestingly, the reasons for respondents revising their family size aspirations downward and upward often related to the same domains. While financial and work-related reasons were often seen as constraints that led to a downward revision, a few respondents who wanted more children than when they were 20 years old mentioned their improved financial resources or job situation. Perceptions of financial resources were sometimes couched in terms of the desire to give children a good start in life, including sending them to private schools. For some, personal values and beliefs about how to maximise children's life chances led to perceptions of financial constraints.

Partnership issues, along with age, health and fecundity, emerged as reasons for changing family size aspirations. While lack of a partner and relationship breakdown led to revisions downwards, finding a partner and feeling secure in this relationship was often mentioned as a reason for upward revision. And while some of those who were already approaching their forties saw their age and fecundity problems as reasons for downward revisions, upward revision of family size was sometimes explained in terms of having "grown up" and changed priorities in life accordingly.

The pressures of parenting sometimes appeared to trigger downward revision, while for some, the joys experienced in parenting led them to consider having more children. Clearly, improving access to strategies that help those who are finding the task of parenting a stressful one is important. There also needs to be a change in the way in which parenting is perceived by many of those who are yet to have children. As noted above, parenting has within some sections of society, been devalued, and the FDMP suggests that some people are unaware of the positive aspects of having children until (and unless) they become parents.

Others who had revised their views downward explained this change of heart in terms of the problematic state of the world for raising children or over-population. On the other hand, upward revisions were sometimes explained in terms of a desire to have both a boy and a girl or to give a child a sibling.

6.4 Important considerations when thinking about having children

Respondents in the FDMP were also asked to indicate, on a scale from 0 to 10, how important each factor was when considering whether or not to have a child. Table 3 ranks the 28 items according to the proportions of men and women who appeared to see the item as very important (here defined as ratings of 8 to 10).

Table 3. Proportion and ranking of factors considered important in having children, by gender
  Per cent Rank
  Men Women Men Women
Can afford to support child 65 67 1 1
Female partner makes a good parent 65 58 1 3
Male partner makes a good parent 63 60 3 2
Having someone to love 57 46 4 7
Male partner's job security 53 57 5 4
Female partner's age 49 56 6 5
Uncertain that relationship will last 47 47 7 6
Add purpose/meaning to life 45 39 8 11
Male partner's age 42 42 9 9
Male partner established in job/career 41 37 10 13
Giving child(ren) a brother/sister 40 37 11 13
Finding good affordable child care 40 46 11 7
Child would make partner happier 37 23 13 23
Female partner's job security 34 38 14 12
Child would be good for relationship 32 27 15 19
Ability to buy/renovate/move home 32 30 15 17
Time/energy for male partner's career 30 40 17 10
Suitable world for children 30 29 17 18
Female partner established in job/career 29 37 19 13
Time for leisure & social activities 27 24 20 21
Time/energy for female partner's career 26 24 21 21
Stress and worry of raising child 24 34 22 16
Have at least one/another boy 23 12 23 28
Ability to make major purchases 22 22 24 24
Too much stress on relationship 22 26 24 20
Other children would miss out 19 22 26 24
Have at least one/another girl 18 16 27 26
Child difficult to raise 11 15 28 27

Source: Weston et al. (2004)

The capacity to support a child financially and the ability of each partner to be a good parent were issues that were most commonly considered to be of the highest importance. The male partner's job security was also a key issue for most men and women. Other matters rated as highly important by close to 50 per cent or more of men and women were: having someone to love, the female partner's age and the uncertainty about a relationship's future.

By contrast, only one-quarter of men and women emphasised concerns that may reflect emphasis on individualism, such as having time for leisure and social activities, and the ability to make major purchases.

Women were more likely than men to attach strong importance to the male partner having the time and energy to put into his career, and to the stress and worry of raising a first or additional child. The latter finding is not surprising given that the female partner usually assumes most of the responsibility for the everyday care of the children (Baxter, 2002; Bittman, 2004; Morehead, 2001).

In conclusion, these results clearly suggest that most Australians in their primary childbearing years either have or want children, and while most respondents expected to achieve their preferred family size, for some this had come about by a downward revision of aspirations to better fit personal circumstances. Furthermore, sizeable numbers did not expect to achieve their aspirations.

An important finding is that for both men and women the ideal family size was higher than that required for population replacement, but also higher than the family size that respondents expected. The proportion of young childless respondents who expected to remain childless was clearly lower than the proportion of young women who are projected by the ABS (2002) to be permanently childless (25 per cent).

A core set of issues appeared to shape aspirations and expectations, including achievement of an adequate income stream and ongoing secure employment; the perceived difficulties in having the time for both work and family life; and, for older respondents, age and fecundity problems. Importantly, this report clearly suggests that people are very concerned about their capacity to be a good parent and to provide the emotional security for their children that comes from a secure relationship.

13 This study was undertaken by the AIFS in collaboration with the Office for Women in the then Australian Government Department of Family and Community Services (now the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA)).

14 This information was derived from open-ended questions.

15 Throughout this document, “cohabiting” refers to living-together unions involving couples who are not legally married to each other.