'It's not for lack of wanting kids...' A report on the Fertility Decision Making Project
Australia's fertility rate has fallen dramatically since the 1960s. It is now at an all-time low and well below replacement level.
This report attempts to gain an understanding of the reasons for fertility trends, at both the macro and micro levels. It reports the findings of the Fertility Decision Making Project, commissioned by the Federal Office for Women, and provides in-depth analyses of the aspirations, expectations and ideals of Australians as related to the question of whether to have children, or not. Particular attention is given to the ways in which views on having children vary according to age, gender, parenting status, relationship status, educational level, and employment status.
The aspirations examined included the family size respondents considered to be personally ideal; whether or not they wanted a first or additional child in the future; whether or not those aged 22 or more had changed their family size preferences since they were 20 years old, and reasons for any change; the reasons leading some of the childless respondents to prefer not to have children; and views about the ideal age for the respondents themselves to start, or to have started, a family. The 3,201 respondents were also asked to indicate how likely it was that they would have a child in the future.
The report concludes that, in short, governments need to use a combination of approaches that is based on the recognition that the low fertility rate is not due to a "lack of wanting children".
The decline in fertility in Australia and beyond is increasingly seen as a crisis. The total fertility rate is cited almost daily, like a procreative Dow Jones Index. Prognostications and predictions of the likely impacts on all aspects of Australian life have become an industry. While the figures are of concern to many, to others they are not.
The decline is beyond doubt, while the cause remains a matter of great conjecture. What lies behind the statistics? Are fertility decisions merely a matter of lifestyle choices, as some would wish to trivialise it? How do individuals make decisions about whether to have children or not? When it comes to having children, is there a gulf between what people expect and what they would ideally want? How diverse are the patterns of aspirations, expectations? These are questions of fundamental importance for the nation and for those who frame public policy.
The Office for Women is to be congratulated in commissioning the Australian Institute of Family Studies to undertake the groundbreaking research that has resulted in this publication. "It's not for the lack of wanting kids..." reports the findings of the Fertility Decision Making Project and provides the first indepth analyses of the aspirations, expectations and ideals of Australians as related to the question of whether to have children, or not. It succeeds in going beyond the statistics by putting a human face to the numbers. Finally, it challenges some of the widely-held misconceptions, inappropriate assumptions and enduring myths that surround the topic of fertility decision-making.
The Institute's research team, so ably led by Ruth Weston, included Robyn Parker, Lixia Qu and Michael Alexander. They are to be applauded for making such a landmark, substantial and readable contribution on this topic.
I am delighted that the Australian Institute of Family Studies has been able to be involved in a project that will be of such widespread interest, immediate value and signal relevance to social policy.
Professor Alan Hayes
Australian Institute of Family Studies
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.
Authors and Acknowledgements
In collaboration with the Australian Government Office for Women, Department of Family and Community Services, the Australian Institute of Family Studies conducted a major survey to explore the decisions that Australian men and women are making about having children. The project was completed in November 2004.
The Institute thanks the Office for Women for the opportunity to be involved in this important project. The report has been prepared for a wide audience including policy makers, practitioners, researchers, and the general public. It is hoped that this work will provide a better understanding of the reasons for the total fertility rate in Australia being at an all-time low.
This work was undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in partnership with the Australian Government Office for Women, Department of Family and Community Services. As always, a report of this nature is the result of the combined efforts of many people. We would particularly like to thank our colleagues at the Office for Women, especially Leonie Campbell and Louise Falconer, for their efforts in launching the project and for their continued support during the challenging process of constructing a survey of this magnitude and standing.
Since the project began, we have benefited from the encouragement of David Stanton, the former Director of the Institute (2000-2003) who set us off on this journey, and from the guidance of Professor David de Vaus who, in his previous capacity as Senior Research Advisor at the Institute, provided invaluable expertise in the design and development of the project. Institute researcher Anna Ferro provided invaluable assistance with setting up and maintaining the reference database and preparing the qualitative data incorporated into this report.
During the intense stage of report writing, Professor Alan Hayes, Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and Deputy Director, Dr Alison Morehead provided valuable comments and insights, and were a source of enormous support and encouragement.
While many contributed to this work, it is the authors who are responsible for any errors or omissions.
Finally, we are grateful to the participants in the Institute's Fertility Decision Making Project for their generous contribution of time and, above all, their sharing of myriad details about deeply personal aspects of their lives.
Weston, R., Qu, L., & Parker, R. A. (2005). "It's not for lack of wanting kids ..." A report on the Fertility Decision Making Project (Research Report No. 11). Melbourne: Australian Institute lof Family Studies.
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