Australia has a problem. The problem threatens to undermine Australia's economy, pension system, future political stability, and perhaps fundamentallty change its national character. Europe and - to a lesser extent - the US face the same problem. Australians aren't having enough babies
, writes Sarah MacDonald on the BBC.
The Australian population recently passed the 20 million mark. In order to replace ourselves we need every woman to have an average of 2.1 children. We're only producing 1.7 and that is predicted to be less than 1.6 by 2010.
But Australia's leaders, unlike their European and American counterparts, are at least willing to talk about their problem.
Prime Minister John Howard uses phrases such as "Come on, come on, your nation needs you" and his treasurer is even bossier. While releasing the annual budget in May - which included a cash baby bonus for all new mothers - Peter Costello smirked and cajoled the women of Australia with the words:
"If you can have children, you should have one for your husband, one for the wife and one for the country."
The treasurer and prime minister's prominent conservative colleague Malcolm Turnbull has long been warning us we risk extinction if we don't hurry up and procreate.
Immigration has taken some of the edge off Australia's baby dearth, allowing the overall population to continue to rise even as the number of children declines. But the consequences of a society that produces fewer and fewer of itself is becoming evident to many Aussies, Ms. MacDonald writes.
Australia likes to see itself as a young vibrant nation, but the truth is - because of the decline in birth rate and an increase in life expectancy - our population is noticeably aging.
I just had a summer holiday near a popular beach town and was amazed at the way the area was changing. Aqua-aerobics for the elderly, bingo nights, card clubs and ballroom dancing dominated the town's activities.
The reasons for the fall in Australian fertility are the same as those lowering birth rates around the world: increasing wealth and education.
The reasons Australian women are having fewer babies are many, varied and complex. Of course, one major reason is that they can. Women have control over their fertility.
There's a global trend that illustrates the more educated women are, the higher the income they earn and the fewer children they have. In Australia many woman are waiting to have kids until they feel established in their careers.
Combine this with the social trend that extends our adolescence and states that 30 is the new 20 and 40 the new 30 and you can see why the average age of marriage has risen to 27.
Ms. MacDonald observes that Australia and the US stand as the only industrial nations that have not mandated minimum paid maternity leave. She also laments the lack of affordable child care. Yet, the developed nations that have such mandatory paid maternity leave and provide government sponsored child care fare no better in encouraging their populations to replace themselves. Europe, which has enshrined such ideas into its social welfare system, faces even more dramatic decreases in fertility (among native European groups). Europe only produces 1.5 births per woman
; should this trend continue, researchers say that Europe's population may contract by 88 million excluding immigration
by 2050. Thus, a generous social policy doesn't seem to have much impact on fertility rates.
The catastrophic effect of dangerously low fertility combined with an ever-increasing elderly population on social welfare systems has attracted the attention of even the UN. At a 2002 UN conference in Madrid, Anna Diamantopoulou, social affairs commissioner for the European Union, warned that "a higher birth rate would be needed to counter an 'alarming' rise in the proportion of elderly people." Ms. Diamantopoulou chided European nations for allowing their birth rates to fall "out of balance" and told the conference: "The first problem is that we are not replacing our populations, with low birth rates causing a growing distortion in our demographic structures."
Ms. MacDonald observes that some have blamed feminism for Australia's baby bust.
Some prominent Australians - including women - are blaming feminism for our fertility problems. Last year broadcaster Virginia Haussegger wrote an article in the Melbourne Age newspaper about what she called her "sad, barren state". It's still being discussed and dissected.
She said motherhood was presented to her generation as a handicap and a hindrance.
She was angry that she took the word of feminist mothers who she says told her she could have it all when they should have been warning her about the biological clock.
Sher was called "petulant, a brat, and shameful," but she also got appreciative letters from women who felt as angry as she did.
Similar arguments have occured in the US, where many women who put off having children until their late thirties and forties have suddenly discovered the harsh biological realities resulting from that decision. Life is based on compromises and trade-offs; philosophies that claim one can "have it all" usually fail to deliver, because we live only so long, aging limits are abilties, and one can only do some many things at once..
But what of the Australian government's efforts to encourage Aussie parents to have more children? Paying bonuses to couples who have more children is an idea with a longer pedigree than Mr. Howard may know. Augustus Caesar, worried over the falling birth rate amongst Romans, tried much the same thing two millenia ago. Appalled by the prevalence of immorality amongst Romans, and the limiting of family size, especially among the patrician class, Augustus imposed a fusillade of legislation know as the Julian laws (since Augustus had been adopted into the Julian family). Adultery became a crime; men under sixty and women under fifty were required to marry - or face severe financial penalties; patricians were forbidden to marry from certain lower classes; in government appointments men with large families were favored over those with smaller families; women who bore three or more children were entitled to financial and social benefits from the imperial government.
The result? According to historian Will Durant
The laws were loosely drawn, and recalcitrants found many loopholes. Some men married to obey the law and divorced their wives soon afterwards; others adopted children to secure offices or legacies and then "emancipated" - i.e. dismissed - them. Tacitus, a century later, pronounced the laws a failure; "marriages and the rearing of children did not become more frequent so powerful are the attractions of a childless state." ... Augustus himself doubted the efficacy of his laws, and agreed with Horace that laws are vain when hearts are unchanged.
Augustus, anticipating Pat Buchanan
among others, finally concluded that only religious revival and a return to traditional morality would stem the tide of immorality and family decay that he felt threatend Roman fecundity. To that end, he encouraged religious devotion, lavished state funds on temples and religious celebrations, and banned Egyptian and Asian cults thought to be subversive to the Roman pantheon. Under these auspices, religion practice increased amongst the Romans, but the effect on Roman fertility seems minimal. Within a generation of Augustus's death, Durant notes,
The Gracchi had been a family of twelve children; probably not five families of such abundance could be found in Nero's age in patrician or equestrian Rome. Marriage, which had once been a lifelong economic unjon, was now among a hundred thousand Romans a passing adventure of no great spiritual significane, a loose contract for the mutual provision of physiological conveniences or political aid. To escape testatory disabilities of the unmarried some women took eunuchs as contraceptive husbands; some entered into sham wedlock with poor men on thge understanding that the wife need bear no children and might have as many lover as she pleased. Contraception was practiced in both its mechanical and chemical foprms. If these methods failed there were many ways of procuring abortion. Philosophers and the law condemned it, but the finest families practiced it.
Nevertheless, Durant says, "the infertility of the moneyed classes was so offset by immigration [to Rome from the provinces] and the fecundity of the poor, that the population of Rome and the Empire continued to grow." The ancient families of Rome disappeared; in their place, gradually stepped "Roman businessmen, Italian municipal dignitaries, and provincial nobles" who, in their turn fell victim to the same practices that had erroded the Roman patriciate and were eventually replaced by other immigrants from the Eastern Greek-speaking portions of the Empire.
The Roman experience aside, other contemporary societies are quietly trying to increase the number of children they produce. Last year, Hong Kong announced that it would alter its tax policies to encourage families to have more children
. Hong Kong also announced that it would admit new immigrants based on the financial assets and they potential skills each immigrant could bring to the territory." We want to upgrade the quality of the population," Donald Tsang, chief secretary to Hong Kong's administration told the New York Times
. Though Hong Kong, "remains one of the most crowded cities on earth, it has become concerned with a steep decline in its birth rate," the Times
noted. "On average, 10 women here give birth to a total of just 9 babies in their lifetimes, compared with the 21 babies that would typically be needed for a self-sustaining population." The Times
reported Hong Kong's policy changes in neutral language. If the US government had announced such a program, one doubts the Times
would have shown such objectivity.