Australia is in the grips of a great baby drought

With the country's birth rate in free fall, can anything put parenthood back on our agenda?

Australia’s birth rate has been falling since the 1970s, and new projections show no sign of an upturn any time soon.

Remember when the Treasurer tried to spice things up in Australian bedrooms? The year was 2004, and Peter Costello had been reading projections of what the country would look like in 40 years when he realised he had a big problem. The proportion of people aged 85 and above was on track to triple and young couples were not having enough babies to support the rapidly ageing population.

A practical man, Costello decided he’d do something to inflame Australians’ passions. He announced his $3000 baby bonus with the now-infamous advice that couples have “one for the husband, one for the wife and one for the country”, and miraculously his mass seduction worked.

Two years later, Costello was prouder than a new father handing out cigars when he declared couples had “taken up the challenge” and produced the highest number of newborns in 13 years. People were feeling confident about the future, he said, and that was good for the country.

A mother holds a newborn baby.

But it was just a blip. Today, the nation’s fertility rate is even lower than it was in 2004 and many young people say starting a family is not a priority. Fewer than half of millennials and Gen Zs questioned for Deloitte’s global survey are focused on kids, ranking parenthood behind buying a home and having a positive impact on society. They fear they lack the financial security to support a family and are palpably anxious about climate change. Another factor in their family planning, say 39 per cent of millennials and 28 per cent of Gen Zs, is environmental impacts.

Australia’s replacement rate – that is, the birthrate needed to replace the number of people dying – is 2.1 births per woman. The average number of babies Australian women are actually having is well below that, at 1.66.

It’s higher in regional areas and lower in inner-city areas. The fertility rate in inner Melbourne, for example, is only 0.94, and the latest projections show it’s expected to fall even further.

“It used to be you got married and you had kids. Now, not everybody gets married, and it’s a choice whether or not to have children,” says Brisbane psychotherapist Julie Gullickson. “A lot of my friends and I were ambivalent about whether we wanted to have children. I got to a stage where I’d be like, ‘Yep. I want to have a baby. I’m going to do it’. Then the next month I’d be like, no. I felt a bit stuck.”

Julie sought out resources to help her grapple with the mother of all questions and, after finding a few useful books, decided to become a counsellor who specialises in helping people decide whether they want to have children. Clients come to her beset with anxiety about the state of the world and their capacity to nurture a child, and she helps them reach the decision that’s right for them.

A graph showing Australia's baby drought.

“One trend,” Julie says, “is: ‘Do I really want to bring a child into this world with social media, bullying, harassment, climate change, finances, and not having family around to help support them?’” Other people feel that, due to their circumstances, they don’t have a choice.  “If you’re still house-sharing in your early 30s, you’re like, ‘How can I bring a child into this world?’ ”

The Global Millennial Survey reports that, while having enough money to pay the bills is a long-running cause of stress, it’s “especially acute” for people aged 21 to 41. Economists and sociologists, analysing why birthrates are falling, also point to the fact that more women are investing in their education and careers, but leading fertility specialist Dr Raelia Lew says it’s not just women.

Headlines like ‘Al Pacino, 83, welcomes baby,’ and ‘Robert De Niro welcomes seventh child at 79,’ fuel the myth that men remain virile their whole lives, but they have biological clocks too. Male infertility is the reason 30 per cent of Dr Lew’s patients need help conceiving, and age is part of that equation.

The biological truth is that delaying parenthood makes it harder to have a baby and leaves less time to have multiple kids. In addition, evidence is emerging that modern life is impacting fertility at a molecular level. So, the answer to the question – ‘What is causing Australia’s baby drought?’ – is far from simple.

Why is Australia’s birth rate declining?

Sydney woman Elly Klein was 40 when she let go of her expectations that she would ever be a mother, and money was a big part of her decision.

“I didn’t feel as though we had the funds,” says Elly, now 46. Both she and her husband, David, “make a modest income. It’s only enough for us to get by. I didn’t want to have kids and say no to them all the time. I didn’t want to live on the hope that our incomes would suddenly, magically go up.”

Elly grew up in a nice house in harbourside Mosman in Sydney, attended a private school and enjoyed frequent holidays. Her mother didn’t work, which meant she had “all the time and energy in the world” for her children. “And I loved that,” says Elly.

She’d always assumed she’d have children, and under the right circumstances Elly thinks she’d have been a good and devoted mother, but she never felt an overwhelming desire to have a baby and without that yearning, she felt committing to a child was the wrong choice.

Elly Klein and her husband decided not to have a baby.
Elly Klein and her husband David. Image supplied.

“I can’t do the work-and-kids juggle. I’m not interested. I think I’d be a fantastic mum if I didn’t have to do both. I watch my friends trying to do both and they just run out of time and energy,” she says. “If I was a baby boomer and had a rich husband and all I had to do was raise the kids, I probably would have kids. My husband’s dad worked in construction, he was able to put a roof over his family and three kids, no problem.”

Economic circumstances have always influenced the number of babies born, says KPMG urban economist Terry Rawnsley. In 1933, the year The Weekly was launched, women were expected to marry and have children, yet the birthrate was only 2.17, well below the peak of 3.55 in 1961, when more women were working. Terry says this is because of the Great Depression.

As we know, the economic recovery caused a baby boom that kept booming until that 1961 high point. Then the Pill, no-fault divorce, a sustained period of economic uncertainty, oil price shocks and rising unemployment sent birth rates plummeting. There was a small increase between 2002 and 2008, around the time Costello was handing out his baby bonus, but the Global Financial Crisis ended that, and the rising cost of housing has helped keep it on a downward trajectory.

“If a city is really unaffordable, it has a long-term impact on that fertility rate,” Terry says. “You see this happening in places like South Korea, Japan and even China where they’ve had these long periods of birthrates around 1.”

Within Australia, expensive inner-city suburbs have lower fertility rates than cheaper regional areas. The birthrate in inner-city Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane is about one child per woman. This creeps up towards two in greenfield areas, and more than two per woman in some regional areas, but housing cost is only part of the story.

“You see women with high levels of education clustered around inner cities and those with lower levels of education more in suburban and regional areas,” Terry says. Women who go to university then build a career tend to have children later.

“There’s definitely a trend towards women having their first child at an older age,” Terry says. “When women are having their first child at 31 or 32, it becomes more challenging to have three or four children.”
For some couples, trying to begin a family in their late 30s or early 40s, it’s not possible to have even one.

As the founder and medical director of Women’s Health Melbourne and the host of the Knocked Up podcast, Dr Raelia Lew spends her days working with couples who want to have a baby but can’t. Presently, one in six Australian couples has trouble conceiving.

“It’s a complicated issue,” she says. “It’s not just social, not just medical, it’s a hard one to address with single, isolated factors.”

But age is a factor.

“Twenty, 30 years ago – when people were trying at a younger age, when they were more optimally fertile – it was a minority of couples who couldn’t have children. The average age of first birth has shifted by a decade and biology has not had time to catch up.”

There has been much discussion of the role greater female workplace participation has played in delayed pregnancies and declining birth rates. But Dr Lew points out that men have more choice and freedom now, too.

Fertility specialist Dr Raelia Lew.
Dr Raelia Lew is a leading fertility expert and host of the podcast Knocked Up.

“One unforeseen consequence of the invention of reliable contraception, the sexual revolution etc, is that men delay commitment to parenthood,” she explains. “There’s been no change to male biology in that time, but their behaviour has changed a lot.

“We’ve got to be really careful not to blame women. Women, I think, are unfairly attributed with a lot of problems. I work full-time, I have two children. We talk about the ‘career woman’, but I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase ‘career man’.”

Dr Lew’s perspective is not, as a rule, reflected in the way society discusses birthrates. Australian Bureau of Statistics fertility data measures the age of the mother, but not the father. Dr Lew points out that fertility is not just a women’s issue.

What are the other factors at play?

In March this year, the medical journal Human Reproduction Update published a major analysis of global sperm counts and concluded sperm count “is declining at an accelerated rate globally”. Sperm count, the research revealed, had declined “appreciably” between 1973 and 2018. The data suggested “this worldwide decline is continuing in the 21st century at an accelerated pace”. Researchers said urgent action was needed to find out why this was happening and how to combat it.

In a recent op-ed, Dr Lew made the comment that we’ve seen sperm counts fall over decades of “modern living”. But it’s tricky to identify exactly what’s causing the drop.

“What’s the difference,” she asks, “between the way we live now and the way that our parents and grandparents lived that explains those changes? The problem is there are so many ways that our lives are different.

“There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of molecules that we are exposed to in products that we apply to our skin, in the products we ingest in terms of processed foods and preservatives, in products we use on crops, like pesticides and fertilisers.” Plastics have become pervasive.

Many factors may be contributing to Australia's baby drought.

One group of chemicals, PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances), is increasingly linked to reduced fertility. Commonly known as ‘forever chemicals’, they can be found in clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging and famously in fire-fighting foam.

Researchers from Singapore and the US published a study this year that looked at PFAS levels among 1000 would-be mothers in Singapore. They found the women with higher than average levels of forever chemicals in their blood had 40 per cent less chance of falling pregnant within a year. Their live birth rate was lower too.

One of the researchers, Dr Damaskini Valvi, told The Guardian: “We have really strong evidence from the laboratory suggesting PFAS can affect fertility in the female reproductive system.”

Forever chemicals also occur in unavoidable household products, including non-stick cookware, carpet, make-up and cleaning products. They’re even turning up in products that claim to be safe and sustainable. In January, period underwear brand Thinx settled a class action in the US because its supposedly organic underpants were found to contain PFAS and silver nano-particles.

This breach of trust went to the heart of two issues very important to millennial and Gen Z women. The first was that customers who had embraced the products were genuinely concerned about the toxic substances in their underpants. Some studies suggest PFAS are particularly bad for ovaries. The second was that they had paid a premium for the period product because they believed they were making an environmentally responsible choice.

Millennials and Gen Z women are making choices based on their impact on the planet and climate, and that includes whether or not to have children.

Journalist and author Gina Rushton wrote about her generation’s simmering anxiety in her book, The Most Important Job in the World. (Buy it here). Among the experts she interviewed is obstetrician Dr Steve Robson, who said, “Every single mother-to-be and dad-to-be I’ve seen today has expressed to me anxiety about what the future holds for the child they’re carrying.”

Can we reverse the baby drought?

When Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers released the latest set of 40-year projections last month, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the many couples choosing to be childless. “We need them to go have babies, otherwise we’re going to have no one to look after us!” Senator Jacqui Lambie lamented.

Terry says there are things political leaders could do to address the falling birthrate. “There’s a range of policies around parental leave which can help to make raising children easier,” he explains. “If you look at the data, places which have a high level of childcare tend to see higher levels of fertility. Providing more childcare places makes it easier for women to be able to maintain contact with the workforce.”

Short-term payments like Costello’s Baby Bonus don’t convince people to have babies they otherwise would not have had, they simply “get things moving”, Terry says. “It didn’t go from ‘I’m not going to have a child’ to ‘Now I am’. What it seemed to do was pull birth forwards. People said: ‘I’m planning on having a baby in the next couple of years. Oh, here’s Peter Costello with the cheque for me. I’m going to bring forward that birth’.”

An empty baby crib.

Dr Lew says becoming a parent is a personal decision and questions whether the falling fertility rate is a problem at all.

“When we think about carbon footprints and our effect on the planet, is it a problem if we have fewer children?” After all, the gap between the fertility rate and the replacement rate doesn’t account for migration. Our birth rate might be declining but the Australian population is not.

However, everyone The Weekly spoke with agreed that if policymakers want to entice people to have more babies, addressing the cost of housing and improving access to childcare would help. Financial security is key and mothers and fathers need support throughout their parenting. It’s not up to millennials and Gen Z alone to turn around those 40-year projections. It takes a village.

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