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Since 1901 Australia has experienced two long periods of fertility decline; from 1907 to 1934, and from 1962 to the present. For the first decade of the 20th century the total fertility rate remained at around 3.7 to 4.0 babies per woman, then consistently declined over the next two and a half decades. By 1934, during the Great Depression, the total fertility rate had fallen to 2.1 babies per woman. It then increased during the second half of the 1930s, as women who had deferred childbearing in the Depression years began to have children. Fertility increased through World War II and the 1950s, and peaked in 1961 when the total fertility rate reached 3.5 babies per woman (see graph 5.21).
According to the United Nations, the world average total fertility rate for 1995-2000 stands at 2.7 babies per woman, declining from the relatively constant five births per woman that existed until the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, total fertility rates for individual countries vary remarkably. There are many factors that can influence a country's fertility rate, such as differences in social and economic development and the prevalence of contraceptives. In general, developing countries have higher fertility rates while developed countries usually have lower rates.
Australia's total fertility rate for 1999, of 1.75 babies per woman, is one of the lowest in the world and well below the world's average. Compared to other developed countries, Australia's total fertility rate is among those of the middle ranked nations. According to the United Nations' estimated average total fertility rates for 1995-2000, Italy and Spain have the lowest total fertility rate (1.2) followed by Germany and Hong Kong (1.3). In contrast, the Middle Eastern and African countries have relatively highest fertility rates, with Yemen (7.6) and Somalia (7.3) the highest.
Over the past fifty years the total fertility rate has declined for most countries. Of the selected countries shown in graph 5.22, the total fertility rates of the Asian countries have shown the largest declines, Singapore declined at an annual average rate of 2.9% per annum, China by 2.7% and Viet Nam by 1.9% between 1950-1955 and 1995-2000.
Women continue to delay childbearing. The median age at childbearing has increased from 26.5 years in 1979 to 28.2 years in 1989, then to 29.7 years in 1999. In 1979 most births were to women aged 26 years, with 8.2% of all births occurring at this age. In 1999, most births were by women aged 28 and 29 years, each with 7.4% of all births. Over the past 20 years there has been a fall in the proportion of births to teenage mothers, from 8.2% in 1979 to 4.7% in 1999. Conversely, the proportion of births to women aged 40 years and above has increased, from 0.8% in 1979 to 2.5% in 1999.
Table 5.24 brings together summary measures of fertility for Census years between 1901 and 1986, and individual years between 1990 and 1999.