FImpact of Changing Fertility Pattern on Society

In 1986, Graeme Hugo wrote that in the post-war period, changes in the pattern of fertility and family formation has had the most wide-reaching effects on reshaping the Australian society. More than twenty years later, the statement is just as valid today as it was in 1986. A womans fertility rate has a deep impact on a number of things including the amount of leisure time she has, her decision to work, the time she can devote to each of the individual child and the overall health of the family. With the fertility rate of the entire nation falling steadily since the Second World War, this has changed the very basis of our society and has far-reaching effects that go way beyond just the family and encompass the entire society.

Since the Second World War, there have been dramatic changes in the way Australian population has grown. Hugo (1986) noted that there has been a continuous decline in the fertility rate in Australia since 1870s when an average Australian woman bore six children. The fertility rate kept declining until the War when for the first time it went below the replacement rate of 2.1. However, immediately after the war there was a boom in fertility rate until 1960, when once again it started to drop and by 1980s had dropped to a level of 1.94. Such a low fertility rate can have both immediate effects for the family and long term effect for the nation. In the years since the book was published, the fertility rate of Australian women had continued to fall to reach an all time low of 1.7 before recovering slightly to 1.9 (Intergenerational Report, 2010). Although, over this period, the Australian population itself has continued to rise, this is mainly due to net overseas migration. The paper will examine the affects of the falling fertility rate on the Australian society, policies and demography.

The immediate effect of low fertility is on the family. When women have fewer children, they are able to devote more attention and time to individual child. This results in better health for the children. Also, with more of the family resources available for each child, the parents can indulge the children and provide them with better opportunities. According to Parr (2004), a large family has negative impact on a persons educational achievements and results in lower, childlike intellectual levels within the household. By contrast, in smaller households, parents are more focused on their childrens educational achievements, spend more time reading to them and engage more in their intellectual and cultural pursuits resulting in better educated children. Higher education levels in smaller families have a direct impact on their ability to get better jobs, which result in more wealth creation. Hence, low fertility levels have a direct impact on how well the children do as adults. The falling fertility levels of Australian women have resulted in better educated Australians who can make more substantial contributions to the nations GDP.

Research has also shown that low fertility has a direct impact on a womans decision to join the workforce. Women with full time employment have 0.8 fewer children than those not in the workforce (Tesfaghiorghis, 2004). The 2010 intergenerational report supports this claim in that it shows that the number of women in the workforce has gone up from 43.5 in 1978-79 to 58.7 in 2008-09. According to the report, there are a number of factors for this increased female participation in the labour including improved educational levels and declining fertility. As we have seen, better education is a direct result of reduced fertility levels. Hence the declining fertility has the most important impact in the increase in female participation in work force.

When more women join the workforce, it has a radical impact on the society. The first and the most obvious change is the shift in the way women are perceived by the society. As more and more women have entered the labour force, there is an increasing acceptance of working women and the workplace and evolved to accommodate the unique needs of a working mother. More and more organizations today have offer flexible working hours which are utilized not just by women but also by men. Technology has also made it possible for people to work from home, offering women an alternative to leaving children in a day care facility. Part-time work has also increased as many women prefer to work only a few hours and devote more time to their children. Working women has also led to the rise of a new service industry in the form of day care facilities. Thus a decline in the fertility rate can have such a wide reaching impact on the society.

Yet another long term consequence of low female fertility on the Australian society is seen in the ageing population. According to the Intergenerational Report, in 1970 there were 7.5 working aged people per aged person. This has come down to 5 in 2010 and is expected to go down further to 2.7 people per aged person by 2050. This rapidly aging population is the direct result of the changes in fertility patterns since the Second World War. The baby boom years immediately following the War saw the birth of large number children between 1945 and 1960. Better access to healthcare meant that these children had a much higher life expectancy than any previous generation. These baby boomers are now rapidly reaching retirement age.

As the fertility rates dropped after 1960s, there are not enough young people to replace this rapidly ageing population, resulting in a heavier burden of the ageing population on state. This high dependency ratio, which is a direct result of the widely fluctuating fertility rates in the post war period, can have significant impact on the future of the nation. As more and more people retire, the number of people in workforce will come down and this could impact the GDP, resulting in the slowing down of the economy. One way of overcoming this potential problem is retaining the mature age population in the workforce for a longer period. Cooper (2004) has pointed out that between 1984 and 2004, the number of people in the between ages 45 and 65 who are participating in the labour force has increased from 57 to 69. According to Rawnsley and Baker (2004), the number of people between 45 and 84 years who are still working has doubled since 1981. The fact that more people are working till much later in their life has helped offset some of the pressures of the ageing population.

According to the intergenerational report, between 1997-98 and 2009-10, the average number of hours per week that the working population spend at work has come down from 35.7 to 34.1. This is expected to decline further and reach 33.6 hours per week by 2050. The reason why people are working fewer hours is that more women and older aged people are now in the workforce than at any time in the past. Both women and older people tend to work much fewer hours, often preferring to work only part time due to various reasons. As already discussed, women participation in the work force and ageing of the working population are a direct result of the changing fertility patterns in the last few decades. Thus, the fertility patterns of women can have some really far-reaching impact on the society as seem in this case.

As people grow older, they are also more likely to fall sick and have much more need of for health care than younger healthier people. This has led to a growth in health insurance companies. There is also a need to develop services and infrastructure to take care of the seniors and their unique needs. The baby boomers had lived an extremely comfortable life and as they retire they will demand high levels of retirement services as well. Hence, providing these services can prove to be a challenge for the government and will lead to some major changes in the way that these services are offered at present.

Another impact of the declining fertility is on the increased GDP. As more women have joined the workforce, this has led to an increase in the total labour force participation from 60.7 to 65.4. This employment growth led to the growth in the GDP and in the last 40 years Australian GDP has grown at the annual rate of 19 per person. As more and more women join the workforce and with increased productivity as a result of better technology, the GDP is expected to grow further in the coming 40 years, though its rate may slow down to 1.5 per person per annum (Intergenerational Report, 2010) . Thus an increased female participation in the workforce, which is a direct result of decreased fertility, has had a positive impact on Australian economy.
The fast ageing population also creates problems for the fiscal sustainability. Older populations mean higher spending on public healthcare, pensions and other social services (Intergenerational Report, 2010, p31). By around 2018, ageing and health pressures will lead to a gradual deterioration of the governments finances which could lead to a net debt of about 20 percent of the GDP by 2050.

Similarly, the changes in the population demographics have seen and continue to see a wide ranging impact on the smallest and the biggest of the things in the Australian society. For example, an increased number of women in the workforce, means that they are economically and financially independent and capable of taking their own decisions and taking care of themselves. This independence has also meant they women today are less tolerant of abusive relationships and prefer to get divorced than remain in an abusive marriage. The obvious fallout is the higher divorce rates. The higher divorce rates have further problems as many children who grow up in a broken household may not have a positive view of marriage. As the institution of marriage is no longer a sacrosanct as it used to be, there is an increasing tendency to avoid getting marriage until very late in life resulting to higher instances of children out of wed-lock. Also, some young adults may have a completely negative view of marriage after having seen their parents marriage end in divorce and may decide to not marry at all. The increasing instance of live-in relationships is one such fallout of these negative attitudes towards marriage.

Similarly, another impact of lower fertility on the society is seen the governmental policies. The policy of giving a child bonus to promote fertility is one such policy which is the direct result of low fertility rate. Also, with the working age population fast falling, the government is left with little alternative than to have a very liberal immigration policy. This has resulted in the immigration of people from all over the world to Australia, changing the face of Australian society.

Thus we see, that while Hugo might have felt that the varying fertility patterns have had an important impact on shaping the Australian society, these fertility patterns, in fact continue to have and will continue to have far-reaching affect on the society fro many more years to come. Lower fertility rates have immediate impact on the family with the children getting better education and attention, and more women joining the workforce. In the long term, a sudden rise and than a sudden fall in fertility, as seen in the decades following the Second World War can lead to a population imbalance, which can have many negative impacts on the economy. So the varying fertility pattern of the post war period has had impacts which are not yet fully realized and only time will tell how they will shape the future of the Australian society.


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