Fertility rate: Why are women having fewer children across the globe?

For a population to maintain its current size that is, neither shrink nor grow the total fertility rate needs to be above 2.1 births per woman. Photo: NikolayK/iStock

After moving from the era of six or seven children in a family to the  'hum do hamare do' period of two or three kids, Indian society is now gradually embracing the 'children is a choice' ideology. While India's fertility rate was 6.2 in the fifties, it was 2 in 2021. A recent report from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention shows US fertility rates dropped 2 per cent in 2023. Australia exhibits a similar pattern. Fertility has declined since 2007 despite government attempts to invest in a baby bonus to encourage Australian women to have more children. Japan, South Korea and Italy have some of the lowest global fertility rates. This makes one wonder - why are women across the world having so few babies? And, importantly, why should we care?

How much fertility is good for a country?
For a population to maintain its current size that is, neither shrink nor grow the total fertility rate needs to be above 2.1 births per woman. This is because there should be enough babies to replace both parents after they die - one baby to replace the mother and one to replace the father, and a little extra to account for infant mortality. In short, for a population to grow, a woman should have more than two children. This is exactly what happened in many Western nations, such as Australia, the UK and the US, following the Second World War. Women were having more than 2.1 births, which resulted in a baby boom.

Many families grew to three or more children. This type of population structure, replacement or some growth, is critical to creating a healthy working-age population to support the young and old. But, in many countries, the fertility rate is less than the replacement level, which means the population is shrinking. In the US and Australia, the current fertility rate is 1.6. In the UK it is 1.4. In South Korea, it is 0.68. So, these countries are shrinking, and in the case of South Korea, shrinking quickly. What this means is that more people are dying in these countries than being born. As a result, the population is getting older, poorer and more dependent on others for their care.

Why is fertility declining?
So, why aren't women having more babies? Well, there are a few answers:
1. Women are better educated now than ever before. Education delays fertility for multiple reasons. First, it pushes out the age of first birth since women are spending a longer time in school. Second, it gives women more resources they then want to trade on the market after finishing a degree. Simply, women are often not having babies in their teens and early 20s because they are getting their education and launching their careers.
2. Young people are being delayed in, well, everything. It is much harder for young people to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood - stable jobs and buying a first home. Often these are factors that are identified as critical to having a first child. So, many young people are delaying fertility due to economic and housing insecurity.

3. Further, we now have safe and effective contraception, which means sex outside of marriage is feasible and sex without procreation can be almost guaranteed. All of this means parenthood is delayed. Women are having babies later and fewer of them.
4. Children are expensive and time-consuming. In many industrialised nations, the cost of children is astronomical. School tuitions, even for public schools, absorb a significant portion of parents' budgets.

Baby food
For population to grow, a woman should have more than two children. Photo: Shutterstock/PeopleImages

If you multiply this by more children, the costs go up. Intensive parenting norms, which guide how many people parent, emphasise significant time investments in children that are one-on-one. Simply, we spend more time interacting with our children in intense ways than previous generations.
And all of this is on top of greater time spent in paid employment. So, to do parenting right, according to current social norms, is to be deeply invested in our children in terms of time, energy and resources, including money.

5. Workplaces and policies are slow to adapt to supporting caregiving. Our workplaces still expect significant face-to-face time at work and long hours. Although the pandemic ushered in more remote work, many workplaces are rolling back this provision and mandating people return to work in some capacity. 
A nuanced approach is needed
Because the reasons behind declining fertility are not simple, the solutions can't be simple either. Offering baby bonuses, as Australia and other nations have done, is pretty ineffective because they don't address the complexity of these interlocking issues. If we are serious about supporting care, we need better career and housing pathways for young people, more investment in child and aged care infrastructure, technological innovations to support an ageing population, and workplaces that are designed with care at the core. This will create a culture of care to support mothers, fathers, children and families alike.

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