Cultural change is the key factor to reversing an alarming downward trend in New Zealand’s birth rate, says a demographics commentator.
Marcus Roberts, who, with his wife Shannon, ran the Demography is Destiny blog on the Mercatornet website for ten years, before stepping down this year, said that recent Stats NZ figures show that, over the last 12 years, the total fertility rate has plummeted from 2.19 to 1.61, “an alarming drop of over a quarter”.
New Zealand’s total fertility rate in 2020 was down to 1.61 births per woman over their lifetimes, its lowest recorded level, and well below the population replacement rate of 2.1, Stats NZ said last month.
Mr Roberts told NZ Catholic that, from the late 1970s, New Zealand’s fertility rate hovered around the replacement rate (it bounced between 1.9 and 2.2). But since 2008, it has trended sharply downwards.
“While Covid may have exacerbated this trend, the drop itself cannot be explained as Covid- related — it is sustained and continues to trend downwards.
“Over this same last 12 years, the median age for mothers has increased from 30 to nearly 31 years, and nearly half (46 per cent) of first-time mothers in 2020 were aged over 30. Mothers are becoming older, and having fewer children on average.”
Mr Roberts, who is Catholic, said that, as New Zealand’s population continues to age, and as the baby boomer generation dies out more quickly, “our natural growth over the last 70 years of between 25,000 and 40,000 more births than deaths a year will start to decline quite sharply”.
“We may soon be in a situation where we are reliant on immigration to prop our population up (like Italy and Germany), or our population will start to decline absolutely (like Japan, Bulgaria and soon, China).”
Mr Roberts said that, while declining population, or slowing population growth, is good for pressure on utilities and scarce resources — housing being the obvious example — it creates severe economic headwinds.
Numbers of taxpayers and consumers, debt repayment, increasing healthcare costs with an aging population — these are some of the issues.
In terms of what can be done about declining birth rates, Mr Roberts said that economic policies can help, for example baby bonuses or tax relief.
“But I am not convinced that, in themselves, they will reverse the decline. We often seem to think that we must be financially independent and ‘set-up’ with tertiary education, house and career before thinking of children. But by then it is often too late to have many children, if any. And with mortgages requiring both parents to work, children are seen as an economic burden.”
“We need a change in culture that says that there is never a right time to have children, that they will always be inconvenient and costly, but that they will be worth it.
“Government policy can help insofar as it can prioritise the family, and make it clear that the family and children are important to society.
“But as long as our societies prioritise the individual above all, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see our fertility rates continue to decline.”
According to Stats NZ figures, since 2013, the number of women of reproductive age has increased by 11 per cent, and the number of births has decreased by 2 per cent.
The areas with the lowest fertility rates were Otago (1.38) and Wellington (1.54).
The highest fertility rates were in Gisborne (2.33) and Northland (2.28).