6 July 2023

Family friendly policies and a fairer economy needed as young put babies on hold

| Ian Bushnell
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woman receiving an ultrasound

Australian women are increasingly late bloomers, and that’s creating problems. Photo: FatCamera.

Who’d want to be a parent?

Well, fewer and fewer of us. With a total fertility of only 1.7 births per woman, Australia continues to reproduce at less than replacement, with immigration filling the gap.

According to the ABS, the total fertility rate after 1921 peaked at 3.55 in 1961 and has been trending down ever since, with rises in the 1970s and in 2008 when it hit 2.02.

Since then, it has continued to fall, hitting a low of 1.59 during COVID, but then recovering.

The ACT (1.45) has the lowest total fertility rate in the country.

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The situation throws up a lot of contradictions as more and more women defer starting a family into their 30s while others anguish about their or their partners’ infertility, while others who can afford it embark on gruelling rounds of IVF treatment that have low success rates.

By 2020, a little more than half of Australian women had their first child at or over 30 years of age, and 17 per cent of first-time mothers were 35 years or older.

The fact is the older we are, the less chance there is of conceiving a child.

Yet, for many reasons, that is what many are doing, living in hope or denial that there will still be enough time.

But looking at what young people are facing, who can blame them?

Putting aside the narcissism of extended adolescence and fear of a world seemingly imploding, starting a family can be a very poor financial decision.

Lack of sleep, the inability to finish a sentence without interruption or the strains on a relationship are but passing clouds compared to the economic grind of soaring housing costs, student debt repayments, ever-rising childcare costs and income loss.

Many look at what it all adds up to and decide to wait until they are qualified, increasingly at an older age (whether it be tertiary or vocational), established in their work, have saved enough on the requisite two incomes or three for a home deposit or at least some semblance of economic security.

The problem is that goal of economic security keeps disappearing into the horizon.

And when the baby does arrive, before long, whether families like it or not, the cost of the child care that supports those two incomes can erode what advantage, or equilibrium, they provide.

The Albanese Government made more childcare support an election promise and has duly delivered, but the subsidised private sector model is simply chewing up that extra support in higher fees.

One could argue, in the parlance of those who oversaw the demise of the community-based not-for-profit model, that child care is a tax on the family.

Many couples are not having the number of children they might have wished for, deciding their finances and family bonds just won’t stand the strain.

These economic barriers to forming families have serious implications for Australian society, creating an imbalance between young and old, eroding the workforce required to pay for pensions and forcing a greater reliance on immigration.

The health repercussions of delayed childbirth and the increased costs to the health system are also substantial.

The nation requires policy responses that deal with these issues and the government is making some attempts through its labour reforms to lift wages and housing accord to increase the number of homes being built, including social and affordable ones.

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But a universal childcare system would both increase workforce participation and remove an impost on families. However, sufficient support should also be in place for families caring for their children at home.

Housing cannot be reformed without changing the overgenerous tax treatments it enjoys.

Parental leave needs to be extended across the economy.

The HECS system and the fees universities charge need to be reviewed.

Tax breaks for kids are great, but they’re all a bit pointless if they are swallowed up in an inequitable economy.

We cannot continue to shortchange our young people and the future.

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devils_advocate2:38 pm 10 Jul 23

With the rise of the dual income household (two incomes is now the minimum required to get by) people having to stay longer in education to get a professional job and low wage growth relative to cost of living, most people cannot sensibly entertain the idea of having children until at least their 30’s.

HiddenDragon8:08 pm 07 Jul 23

Taking the long(ish) view back to the days when the great majority of Australian families with children could get by on a single full-time income, with about 70% of those families home owners, and comparing that to the current mess, the question has to be asked – what went so wrong and why didn’t we manage to transition from that to a world in which most families could still get by respectably on the equivalent of a single full-time income earned, according to their choice, by the mother, the father or a combination of the two from time to time?

Taking the same perspective, it is arguable that a fair chunk of the higher family incomes arising from the much greater participation of women with dependent children in the paid workforce, along with the billions of government subsidies for child care, has been consumed by bidding up the cost of putting a roof over the head in what is now a highly rigged and financialised housing market.

We have dug ourselves into a very deep hole, and even with the best of wills, and the wisest of reforming policies, getting out of it would be a slow and painful process – but a quick browse of the register of interests of federal politicians – replete with little property barons and baronesses from the PM down – suggests nothing much that addresses the fundamental issues will be changing, regardless of how bad things get for Australian families.

Weird that there’s no mention of climate change! Every young woman I’ve spoken to is adamant that the coming extinction of life from climate change is the biggest and indeed the only reason for not inflicting such suffering on any children or grandchildren.

Stephen Saunders8:07 am 07 Jul 23

Albanese Open Borders is not “filling the gap”. Immigration is higher than 1% of population. Only Trudeau Canada is crazier. But we can’t ever change it – that would be racist.

An overly bleak, negative and dystopic article. Yes there are financial and social costs of children. But the benefits of having kids far outweigh their cost, as every generation has discovered, just some slower than others. The more insecure and self centred a person is, the more reasons they’ll create not to become a parent. Don’t tell a young couple about the costs, just look at the wonder on their faces as they hold their newborn.

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