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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1996  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/06/1996   
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Contents >> Family >> Family Formation: Trends in fertility

Family Formation: Trends in fertility

Australian women are having fewer children than ever before. In 1994, 41% of births within marriage were the first child of that marriage.

Fertility is one of the components of population growth and changes in fertility impact on both the size of the population and its structure. Declining fertility leads ultimately to an ageing population which has policy implications for income support and the provision of health and community support services (see Australian Social Trends 1994, Projections of the aged population).

Throughout this century, the crude birth rate has been declining although there have been fluctuations, most notably the recovery after the low of the great depression through the war years and the 'baby boom'. However, changes in fertility cannot be considered in isolation from changes in infant and child mortality nor from changes in society which have increasingly seen children as an economic liability rather than the economic advantage they were in pre-industrialised times.

In the hundred years 1894-1994, the crude birth rate halved, from 31 births per 1,000 mean population to 14. During the same period the infant mortality rate declined significantly. In 1894, for every 1,000 babies born, 104 died before their first birthday. In 1994 the number was 6.

CRUDE BIRTH RATES AND INFANT MORTALITY RATES

Crude birth rate(a)
Infant mortality rate(b)
Year
rate
rate

1894
30.83
103.90
1904
26.41
81.77
1914
27.90
71.47
1924
23.21
57.08
1934
16.39
43.59
1944
20.98
31.34
1954
22.50
22.48
1964
20.58
19.06
1974
17.87
16.14
1984
15.02
9.24
1994
14.47
5.86

(a) Births per 1,000 mean population.
(b) Deaths under 1 year per 1,000 live births.

Source: Australian Demography; Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0); Deaths, Australia (cat. no. 3302.0)


Family size and fertility

Births occurring in Australia must be registered with the state/territory Registrars of Births, Deaths and Marriages. For births, information is collected about the mother, father (when paternity is acknowledged), the baby, and any previous births to the mother from her current marriage. If the mother is not married or has been married more than once, information about any children from previous relationships is only collected by the WA and ACT registries.

Current family size is calculated from the information supplied on previous births. It does not take account of childhood deaths, adoptions or children not living with the family. Therefore, while it reflects the actual number of children a mother may have care of, it is not a complete measure of family size. This is particularly relevant to the interpretation of data from the early part of the century when child mortality was high and mothers bore children over a long period of time so that the older ones may have left home before the younger ones were born.

The total fertility rate is the number of babies a woman could expect to have in her lifetime given the fertility patterns prevailing at the time. The fertility rate for a particular age group is the number of babies that group of women could expect to have given the fertility patterns prevailing in the group at the time.

Replacement level fertility is the value of the total fertility rate which, when deaths of women of child bearing age are taken into account, allows replacement of the total population. At current levels of mortality it is a total fertility rate of 2.1.


Changes in total fertility
Government concern about population growth is not new in Australia. However, recent policy has focused on migration while in the first half of the century, the concern was declining fertility. In 1903, when the crude birth rate was lower than it had ever been before (see Australia's population growth), The Royal Commission On the Decline in the Birth-rate and On the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales was appointed, the first such Royal Commission in the English-speaking world. It reported in 1904 and concluded that '...the cause or causes of the Decline of the Birth rate must be a force or forces over which the people themselves have control...'1. In other words, couples were limiting the size of their families.

At the turn of the century, there were 117 births per 1,000 women of child bearing age (15-44 years). This approximates a total fertility rate of 3.5. In 1924, the total fertility rate was 3.0 and falling. In 1925, a Federal Royal Commission on Health was appointed to examine the falling birth rate, the high maternal and infant death rate and venereal disease.

In 1934, in the middle of the great depression, the total fertility rate fell to an all-time low of 2.1 babies per woman. It then increased during the second half of the great depression, through World War II, and continued to increase until 1961 when it reached 3.6 babies per woman. In 1944, ironically when the birth rate was increasing towards the 'baby boom', the National Health and Medical Research Council published an Interim Report on the Decline of the Birth-rate.

After the 1961 peak, the total fertility rate fell rapidly, to 2.9 babies per woman in the years 1966-1971. This fall has generally been attributed to the contraceptive pill becoming available but it also reflects changing social attitudes, in particular a change in people's perception of desired family size and how children should be spaced. The pill merely made '...desired family size a practical and assured reality'2.

During the 1970s the total fertility rate dropped again, from 2.9 in 1971, falling to below replacement level in 1976 where it has since remained. This fall was just as marked as the fall in the early 1960s, but has not been attributed to further improvements in contraceptive methods. Rather it has been linked to the increasing participation of women in the labour force coupled with changing attitudes to family size, standard of living and life-style choices3.

TOTAL FERTILITY RATE


Source: Australian Demography; Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0)


Current family size
Current family size is an indicator of the average number of children in a family. It depends on the proportion of women who, in a given year, give birth to their first, second, third etc babies. Of married women who gave birth in 1924, 29% had their first baby and 23% had their second. 14% had a sixth or higher order birth. Current family size was 3.1 for all married women who gave birth. For married women aged 45 or over who gave birth, current family size was 7.7. This figure approximates completed family size since women aged 45 or over may be considered to have completed their child bearing. In 1934, when the total fertility rate was at its lowest, 33% of married women who gave birth had a first birth, 24% a second and 11% a sixth or higher order birth. Current family size had declined to 2.8.

The fall in the total fertility rate between 1924 and 1934 can be largely attributed to couples limiting their current family size rather than to deferring marriage or the start of their child bearing. In both the 1921 and 1933 Censuses 52% of women aged 15–44 were recorded as married. Between 1924 and 1934 there was no change in the median duration of marriage at first birth (11.6 months). In 1934 current family size for women under 25 and over 44 who gave birth was the same as it had been in 1924. However, current family size for those aged 25-44 had declined since 1924.

After 1934, the proportion of mothers who bore six or more babies continued to decline until 1952, then increased until 1963, and then declined again. In 1981 the proportion fell below 1% for the first time and it has remained at that level ever since. Current family size showed a similar pattern. In 1994 current family size was 2.0 and for women aged 45 or over it was 3.2.

Apart from a peak during the latter years of World War II, the median duration of marriage at first birth did not change much until the early 1960s. However, following the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961, a sharp increase occurred lasting throughout the 1970s before stabilising at about two and a half years.

CURRENT FAMILY SIZE(a)

First births
Sixth or higher order births
Current family size
Year
%
%
number

1924
28.9
13.9
3.1
1934
33.5
11.4
2.8
1944
36.8
6.0
2.4
1954
32.3
5.0
2.5
1964
32.3
6.1
2.6
1974
39.3
2.0
2.1
1984
40.2
0.9
2.0
1994
40.8
0.9
2.0

(a) Births in the current marriage only. Excludes births where birth order was not stated.

Source: Australian Demography; Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0)

MEDIAN DURATION FROM MARRIAGE TO FIRST BIRTH


Source: Australian Demography; Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0)


Births outside marriage
The first part of this review has focused on births within marriage. Until 1960 such births represented more than 95% of all births. However, the link between marriage and child bearing is weakening as de facto relationships become more common (see Australian Social Trends 1995, Trends in de facto partnering). Since 1960 the proportion of births which occurred outside marriage (ex-nuptial births) has increased steadily, reaching 26% in 1994.

The indexes of nuptial and exnuptial births show the relative patterns of change in the numbers of nuptial and ex-nuptial births. Until 1960 the patterns had been similar, both increasing by about 70% overall since 1924. However, in 1961, when the contraceptive pill was first made available in Australia, the patterns began to diverge. Initially, use of the pill was largely restricted to married women. 'Some doctors were reluctant to prescribe for unmarried women unless they could justify a medical indication... advice to prevent pregnancy was considered immoral'4. Even in the Family Planning Associations the debate on whether to extend services to unmarried women and minors (people under the age of 21) continued until the 1970s. Between 1961 and 1971 the number of ex-nuptial births doubled while the number of nuptial births increased by 15%. For the next few years the number of ex-nuptial births declined slightly but started to increase again in 1978 along with the increasing number of de facto relationships.

Because of the increasing number of births outside marriage and of births in second or subsequent marriages, analysis of fertility patterns based on births in the current marriage only no longer gives the full picture. Birth information collected by the Western Australian and Australian Capital Territory registries includes information on all previous births. In 1994, 42% of all women who gave birth in Western Australia and 43% of those in the Australian Capital Territory had their first baby. This is slightly higher than the 39% and 40% respectively of married mothers who had their first baby.

BIRTHS OUTSIDE MARRIAGE


Source: Australian Demography; Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0)

INDEXES(a) OF NUPTIAL AND EXNUPTIAL BIRTHS



(a) Base year 1924=100.

Source: Australian Demography; Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0)

CURRENT FAMILY SIZE(a), 1994

First births
Sixth and higher order births
Current family size
Age
%
%
number

Western Australia
    Nuptial births
39.4
0.8
2.0
    All births
41.5
1.4
2.0
Australian Capital Territory
    Nuptial births
40.1
0.7
1.9
    All births
42.5
0.7
1.9

(a) Excludes births where birth order was not stated.

Source: Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0)


Age of mothers
The last thirty years have seen major changes in fertility patterns. Women are not only delaying child bearing until much later in their lives, they are also having fewer children and there is some evidence to suggest that they are concentrating their child bearing over a shorter span of years.

Between 1964 and 1994, the fertility rate for teenage women fell from 0.24 to 0.10. These births represented 10% of all births in 1964 and 5% in 1994. Similarly, the fertility rate for women aged 35 and over fell from 0.38 in 1964 to 0.24 in 1994. These births represented 12% and 13% respectively of all births. These changes reflect women's greater control over their fertility, regardless of age or marital status, as well as a tendency to defer childbearing associated with increased education and employment opportunities.

In 1964, peak fertility was among 24 year old women, with 23% having babies. By 1994, peak fertility was among 29 year old women, but only 13% had babies. While the proportions of women of each age who had a baby in the year were consistently less in 1994 than in 1964, the age concentration of births increased slightly. In 1964, 61% of births were to women in the ten year peak fertility age group (20-29) and 77% were in the fifteen year group (17-31). In 1994 the ten year peak fertility group (25-34) accounted for 63% of births and the fifteen year group (22-36) accounted for 83%.


PROPORTION OF WOMEN GIVING BIRTH
Graph - Proportion of women giving birth

Source: Births, Australia (cat. no. 3301.0); Estimated Resident Population by Sex and Age, States and Territories of Australia (cat. no. 3201.0)


Endnotes
1 Quoted in Hicks, N. (1978) 'This sin and scandal' ANU Press, Canberra.

2 Browne, E. (1979) The Empty Cradle NSW University Press, Sydney.

3 Birrell, R. and T. (1987) An Issue of People 2nd ed., Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne.

4 Siedlecky, S. and Wyndham, D. (1990) Populate and Perish Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney.


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