Concern at NZ fertility trend down

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).

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Michael Otto

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  1. Bruce Jones says

    The notion of increasing immigration to fudge the govt statistics is an old one.
    People are a wake-up to this.
    They know, as many other countries now know, that increase in taxes leaves less for the wage-earner.
    With less to spend, the obvious solution is to cut back on what costs. Cutting back means fewer children.
    This has been going on for a long time.
    Australians with their Commonwealth bank were able to set up family building much more easily with low-interest loans
    that resulted in unskilled workers owning their own homes, and family stability was assured. Families were able to cling.
    That all changed when Dennison Millar died, and the privatisation of the Commonwealth bank occurred. Yet with this bank
    Australia was able to pay out its war debt so that at the end of WWI Australia finished without a war debt.
    The UK has only recently paid out its war debt.
    Europe is now going through a major crisis. A birthrate of 1.29 (Italy) means that in four generations there will be 17%
    of its current population.
    Remarkable in the middle ages, families of fourteen children were not uncommon, as fathers were employed for less than half the year,
    and then were able to spend the rest of their time building magnificent cathedrals, like Notre Dame. It does not seem to happen today.
    Someone pointed out the surprising number of taxes involved in just producing a loaf of bread- for that country- over fifty.
    By making the effort to cut down taxes, and passing on the benefits to the wage-earners, the parents are more likely to have a reasonable
    sized family. It makes sense to encourage youth. Catholics in parishes can do lots to make this happen, as well as in homes of parents
    whose offspring are becoming marriageable.
    Lump-sum benefits can be helpful to parents struggling with hospital expenses, and the same can be supplied to Catholic schools.
    This would have long term achievements in larger families, and more children would mean raising the consciousness of the public
    towards the most fundamental need: rearing a family.
    Catholics need to face this important issue squarely.

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