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Recent Fertility Trends
Total fertility rate - 1973-2003
DELAYING CHILDBIRTH AND THE AGE OF MOTHERS
The age at which women begin childbearing is a major determinant of lifetime family size. Delayed childbearing reduces overall fertility in several ways. Firstly, it reduces the period during which a woman can have children. Secondly, women who start having children later in life tend to have fewer children during their childbearing years than those women who start earlier in life. (endnote 1) Finally, women also face the increased risk of childlessness due to delaying childbirth. (endnote 2)
There has been a trend towards women delaying births in Australia, which can be seen in changes in the median age of all mothers. The median age of all mothers who gave birth in 1993 was 28.9 years, rising to 29.5 years in 1998 and 30.5 years in 2003.
Over the past ten years, falls in fertility rates for younger age groups (15-29 years) have not been fully offset by increases in fertility for older age groups (30-49 years). (endnote 3,4,5) In 2003, 51% of the TFR was contributed by mothers aged 30 years or over, an increase from 41% in 1993. This gradual shift in fertility towards older ages is a key factor contributing to the decline in Australia's TFR.
...25-29 year age group
Between 1993 and 1998, 25-29 year old women had the highest fertility rate of all age groups. In 2000, this age group slipped to become the second most fertile age group after 30-34 year olds and remained there in 2003.
Fertility of the 25-29 year age group has steadily decreased over the past decade, recording a 26% drop in fertility rate between 1993 and 2003. In 1993, women in this age group had 129.8 births per 1,000 women, falling to 102.9 births in 2003. In 1993, 25-29 year olds accounted for 35% of the TFR, dropping to 32% in 1998 and 29% in 2003.
Age specific fertility rates(a) - selected years
(a) Births per 1,000 women.
Source: Births, Australia, 2003 (ABS cat. no. 3310.0).
...30-34 year age group
Fertility for the 30-34 year age group has slowly but steadily increased in the past decade. After overtaking 25-29 year olds as the peak fertility age group in 2000, women in the 30-34 age group experienced the highest fertility rate of all age groups.
In 2003, there were 112.5 births for every 1,000 women aged 30-34 years. This is an increase of 7% from 105.4 births per 1,000 women in 1993, and the highest it has been since 1964. Births to women in the 30-34 year age group contributed 28% of the TFR in 1993, 31% in 1998 and almost one-third of Australia's TFR in 2003.
...35-39 year age group
From the 1960s, fertility for the 35-39 year age group fell at a steady rate until 1980. From that year onward the fertility rate gradually increased to reach 38.9 births per 1,000 women in 1993 and recorded a high of 54.3 births per 1,000 women in 2003. This age group saw a 40% rise in fertility rate over the ten years from 1993 to 2003.
Women aged 35-39 years contributed 10% of the TFR in 1993, 13% in 1998 and 16% in 2003. In 2003, this contribution was equal to the contribution of 20-24 year olds.
An important driver of low fertility is the fall in the proportion of women having three or more children. (endnote 1) Australia's TFR in 2000 entailed one-quarter of all women having 3 or more children. (endnote 8) Research has estimated that if all the women who had three or more children in 2000 had two children instead, the TFR would have fallen to 1.3. (endnote 5) (endnote 8)
As most children are born to women under the age of 40, the number of children already born to a woman in her 40s usually indicates the total number of children she will ever have. The proportion of women aged 40-44 years with three or more children declined from over half (55%) in 1981 to about 38% in both 1996 and 2001.
The proportion of women with three or more children has also dropped across all age groups since 1981. For example in both 1986 and 1992, around 38% of women in the 35-39 year age group had three or more children. This proportion dropped to 33% in 1996 and 32% in 2001.
Grouped age specific fertility rates(a) - selected years
(a) Births per 1,000 women.
(b) Includes births to mothers aged less than 15 years.
Source: Births, Australia, 2003 (ABS cat. no. 3301.0).
WOMEN WITHOUT CHILDREN
Another driver of low fertility is the number of women having no children. A recent Australian survey on fertility decisions found that 8% of surveyed women without children definitely did not want children. Reasons given for preferring not to have children included lifestyle choices, financial reasons, career and employment, health, lack of partners, fragility of relationships and dislike of children. (endnote 9)
The proportion of women aged under 30 years that do not have children has increased over the past ten years as women delay childbearing. For instance, of women aged 25-29 years in 1992, 49% did not have a child compared with 59% of women of the same age in 2001. (endnote 10) Most births now occur to mothers aged 30 years and over. In 2003, over half (51%) of the TFR was attributed to mothers aged 30 years and over. (endnote 11) For women aged 40-44 years who are nearing the end of their fertility, a greater proportion had not had children in 2001 (13%) compared with women of the same age in 1992 (10%).
The continued delaying of births may result in lifetime childlessness for some women (see Australian Social Trends 2002, Trends in childlessness). Lifetime childlessness is the proportion of women who have reached the end of their childbearing years and have not had any children. Of all women aged 45-49 years at the time of the ABS 1996 census of population and housing, 11% had never had a child.
Lifetime childlessness among women younger than 45-49 years (i.e. those who had not yet reached the end of their reproductive years) can only be estimated. In 2000, it was estimated that 24% of women who had not yet completed their fertility would remain childless for life if fertility rates for 2000 remained constant into the future. (endnote 8)
Proportion of women without children - selected years
(a) ABS 1992 Survey of Families in Australia.
(b) ABS 1996 Census of Population and Housing.
(c) ABS 2001 National Health Survey.
Source: Births, Australia, 2001 (ABS cat. no. 3310.0).
FERTILITY IN THE FUTURE
One of the most dramatic consequences of fertility decline is population ageing, which is already occurring in Australia. This is the inevitable result of sustained low fertility accompanied by increasing life expectancy.
Population projections show that the difference between a middle level fertility scenario in the future (TFR=1.6) and a low level scenario (TFR=1.3) (endnote 5) (endnote 8) equates to about one-third of Australian women having one child less. (endnote 7)
Small differences in fertility levels over the next 50 years could produce very different population outcomes. A change of 0.1 either way in the total fertility rate would result in Australia's population being almost 1.0 million larger or smaller in 2051 (see Australian Social Trends 2002, Fertility futures).
1 Barnes, A 2001, Low fertility: a discussion paper, FaCS occasional paper no. 2, Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra.
2 Weston, R 2004, 'Having children or not', Family Matters, no. 69, pp. 4-9.
3 DeVaus, D 2002, 'Fertility decline in Australia: a demographic context', Family Matters, no. 63, pp. 14-21.
4 Kippen, R 2003, Trends in age- and parity-specific fertility in Australia, Working paper in Demography no. 91, Australian National University, Canberra.
5 McDonald, P 2000, 'Low fertility in Australia: evidence, causes and policy responses', People and Place, vol.8, no.2, pp. 6-21.
6 McNicoll, G 2003, 'Introduction: Australia's population history and prospect', in The transformation of Australia's population: 1970-2030, eds Khoo, S. and McDonald, P., UNSW Press, Sydney.
7 McDonald, P 1998, 'Contemporary fertility patterns in Australia: first data from the 1996 Census', People and Place, Vol. 6 no. 1, pp. 1-12.
8 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Births, Australia, 2000, cat. no. 3301.0, ABS, Canberra.
9 Weston, R, Qu L, Parker, R, Alexander, M 2004, "Its not for lack of wanting kids ...": A report on the Fertility Decision Making Project,, Report no. 11, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
10 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Births, Australia, 2001, cat. no. 3301.0, ABS, Canberra.
11 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, Births, Australia, 2003, cat. no. 3301.0, ABS, Canberra.