Demographers have lots of fun playing around with population figures. The most recent study out in New Zealand, by Professor Ian Pool and Dr Janet Sceats, has four interesting points to make: (1) although New Zealand’s fertility rate (live births per woman) of 2.0 is very close to the rate of 2.1 needed to maintain a population, it will almost certainly fall to about 1.8 within a few years; (2) many women want to have children, but don’t, or have just one child, instead of two or three; (3) waiting until you are older to have children is better for both mother and children; (4) NZ’s “family friendly” policies have failed to encourage people to have children.
So here we go, point by point.
(1) – Every woman needs to have 2.1 children.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with population replacement rates, the 0.1 is to make up for the children who, sadly, die before becoming adults. And it’s couched in terms of live births per woman, because it’s very hard to divvy up responsibility otherwise. That does have the unfortunate consequence of making it seem that responsibility for the growth / maintenance / decline of the population rests with women. I can’t think of a sensible way around that problem.
In any case, all I can say is, we have done our bit, and we are willing to auction off my 0.9 oversupply – notionally, of course. We are not prepared to give up any of our daughters at all. (Before anyone tells me that deciding to have three children is irresponsible in an overpopulated world, I plead that we didn’t decide to have three – it just happened, and the twenty minutes that elapsed between the arrival of number two and number three didn’t really give us enough time to make rational decisions about it anyway.)
This is a long post. There’s more over the break.
(2) – Many women don’t have the number of children they would like to have.
Career pressures, money pressures. No surprises there. If you want to get to a certain level in your career, then one virtually certain way of not getting there is to take time out to have children. And it’s not just the bearing children, it’s the rearing them that makes the difference. It’s very difficult to feed, house, clothe and educate three people on one income, let alone four or five people. So often it’s just not economically viable to have children. Even if it’s affordable, it can still entail one person more-or-less giving up on his or her career, because it takes huge amounts of time to rear children. Especially when children need to be collected from school at 3pm, taken to after school lessons (one after-school activity per child can takes out at least one afternoon a week), homework needs to be supervised, meals cooked and served. No more staying late at the office to get something finished – you simply must go home to care for the children. Of course, you can contract out some of the day-to-day child care, but as I have said before, and will no doubt say again, that’s just not the same as child rearing. Child rearing takes time. Great swathes of time, which can no longer go towards careers. So, if you are keen on advancing in a career, it may be that you sacrifice potential children in order to achieve that. Either you don’t have children at all, or you start when you are in your mid to late thirties, so you only have time for one, or maybe two. Forgoing children for career is a valid choice, but it can still leave you with regrets about the path not taken. (I have taken the other path, and I would never turn back from it, but I still regret my lost career.)
(3) – Nevertheless, both mother and children are better off if childbirth is delayed.
There’s a variety of reasons for this. Older mothers are more likely to be in stable relationships, more likely to be financially secure, happier to take a break in their career. So delaying that first child can be a very good thing.
Yes… but… we have been through the infertility circus, and it was agonising. We first started trying to have a baby when I was 26, and I was 32, nearly 33, when we at last held our baby daughter in our arms. Oddly enough, it wasn’t too bad first time round, but second time was awful. Things didn’t go nearly so smoothly, and it took us month after month after heartbreaking month to conceive again.
Female fertility declines dramatically after age 35, and maybe even earlier. Delaying childbirth can end up with not having children at all, along with all the anguish that entails. Sure, lots of people consciously choose not to have children, and live perfectly fine, good, worthwhile lives. But if you have chosen to have children, and then you are denied, it is heartbreaking.
I’m not so sure that delaying childbirth is a good thing.
(4) – But, existing policy may not encourage people to have children, let alone have them early.
The authors of the study shift from descriptive claims – women are delaying childbirth, our birth rate will fall – to a normative claim – the government needs to return to more pro-family policies, such as universal family benefits and cheap housing loans.
I find that an odd stance. It’s very hard to take a clean stance approach to population policy, and start from a blank slate, unless we remove all government interventions. At the moment, the government has various policies that support families, and may even make it easier for people to have children. For example, the government provides free (or virtually free, or at least very low cost) education for all children above the age of five. That’s an incredible financial boost for families, at one hit removing an expense – education – and giving a benefit – free child care for 40 weeks a year, between 9am and 3pm. It provides free or very low cost maternity and early childhood health services. It gives direct cash transfers to some families. These are all existing interventions that in effect, encourage people to have children.
But some of the other existing policy positions may have the effect of forcing people to delay having children, or not have them at all. For example, the high cost of housing means that many people forgo having children. Government is not responsible for the price of housing, but it is responsible for many of the factors that drive house prices up.
Some existing policy positions actively militate against parenthood. Childcare policies, for example. Government will fund some preschool care, but only for three and four year olds, and only for 20 hours a week, and only at some childcare centres. That makes it harder to organise childcare, and although it may not stop someone from having one child, it may well deter them from having more. After school care is even worse. Although the government in effect provides some free care for school age children, through providing free schooling, after school care and school holiday care can be haphazard, again deterring people from having more children.
So the government already intervenes in people’s reproductive choices. The tricky thing is not removing government from childbearing decision making, but working out the best mix of policies. Perhaps in an ideal world, the push factors would be balanced with the pull factors (use your imagination to work out which ones are which), and people could make childrearing decisions without reference to factors driven, or at least influenced by, government policy.
Of course, people should take all sorts of factors into account when they are deciding whether or not to have children, including whether they are able to support them, and whether they really want to have children anyway. And no matter what, government policies will influence those decisions.
If government is truly concerned about the birth rate, and I’m not sure that it is, then it needs to do more work to free up people’s reproductive choices, not less. Some serious attention to childcare issues would be a start.