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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 December, 2004, 16:55 GMT
Letter: Australia's baby bust
Sarah MacDonald
By Sarah MacDonald
Journalist and broadcaster

Local journalist Sarah MacDonald says her country's reputation as a nation of sun-kissed, healthy youngsters is out-of-date as recent surveys suggest the population is ageing rapidly.

The government has responded by trying to encourage Australians to breed, but the policy is not proving entirely popular.

Elderly people
A declining birth rate is leading to an ageing population
As I hung the tinsel on my tree and fireplace this week, I couldn't help reminiscing about the Christmas days of my childhood.

Not just my favourite presents and the rituals of a hot traditional meal on a sticky humid summer's day but also the disappointments.

My father was an obstetrician and he never ever managed to stay home an entire Christmas day. Every year, usually just as he was about to carve the turkey, the phone would ring and we would all groan. He would return from answering it to say:

"Sorry, kids - gotta go and help a baby Jesus be born."

This year we had my now-retired dad all day. But if he was still working, it's possible he would have got to enjoy the entire Christmas experience anyway.

That's because fewer children are being born now than when he practised. Australia is experiencing a baby shortage that is being called a baby bust by some and a "fertility crisis" by others.


The Australian population recently passed the 20 million mark.

In order to replace ourselves we need every woman to have an average of 2.1 children. We're only producing 1.7 and that is predicted to be less than 1.6 by 2010.

Our population is currently rising thanks to immigration and the fact that we are living longer, but we have problems ahead.

Not all Australians are young, vibrant and sun-kissed surfers
Australia likes to see itself as a young vibrant nation, but the truth is - because of the decline in birth rate and an increase in life expectancy - our population is noticeably ageing.

I just had a summer holiday near a popular beach town and was amazed at the way the area was changing. Aqua-aerobics for the elderly, bingo nights, card clubs and ballroom dancing dominated the town's activities.

An ageing population is an issue not unique to Australia. But perhaps our discussion about it has a uniquely antipodean flavour.

For the last year or so many of our leaders have been urging us to breed in most unsubtle ways.

Prime Minster John Howard uses phrases such as "Come on, come on, your nation needs you" and his treasurer is even bossier. While releasing the annual budget in May - which included a cash baby bonus for all new mothers - Peter Costello smirked and cajoled the women of Australia with the words:

"If you can have children, you should have one for your husband, one for the wife and one for the country.''

The treasurer and prime minister's prominent conservative colleague Malcolm Turnbull has long been warning us we risk extinction if we don't hurry up and procreate.


While I do worry that my generation will soon be trying to support the retired baby boomers and that my child's generation will struggle to support me when I get old, I don't take such comments by our male leaders in a sporting spirit.

And I'm not the only one: at workplaces, playgroups and parties I've heard many women show their distinct lack of enthusiasm for the suggested breeding programme.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Many object to politicians meddling in their sex lives
Let's face it, no-one likes a politician messing around in their sex life. But what's making women crankier than that is the debate that has subsequently arisen about the role of women, the way we work, the nature of our society, relationships, science and even feminism.

Some of it has got rather ugly.

The reasons Australian women are having fewer babies are many, varied and complex. Of course, one major reason is that they can. Women have control over their fertility.

There's a global trend that illustrates the more educated women are, the higher the income they earn and the fewer children they have. In Australia many women are waiting to have kids until they feel established in their careers.

Combine this with the social trend that extends our adolescence and states that 30 is the new 20 and 40 the new 30 and you can see why the average age of marriage has risen to 27.

The fact is Australian women are having babies and they want to, but they're doing it now in their 30s instead of their 20s.

Hedonistic days

Aussies now believe the 20s are for studying, establishing a career, earning money and then blowing it all on international travel or socialising.

It's a time for hedonism and a lack of responsibility and the perfect time to leave the country and thoughts of present and future family far behind.

The 30s are for settling down, buying a house, renovating it (the great Australian obsession) and then popping out a kid or two.

Obviously, settling down later means having fewer children - because there's less time to breed and because starting later is risky. Many Australian women are finding they have left it too late to conceive at all.

Why wasn't Jesus born in Australia? Because God couldn't find three wise men and a virgin.
Australian joke
In vitro fertilisation is increasingly common but it's expensive and painful and still has high failure rates.

There are extremely few Aussie babies to adopt and international adoption costs tens of thousands of dollars and takes more than four years to organise.

And then there's the issue of finding a good bloke to have kids with. I live in Sydney; after San Francisco it's considered the homosexual capital of the world.

This is great if you like great cafes, nightclubs and fabulous parties but I hear at least one woman a week bemoan "all the good guys are married or gay".

And as for those Aussie boys that are straight and single, well, many Australian women are actually questioning whether they are commitment-phobic.

There's a popular joke told around this time of year that asks: Why wasn't Jesus born in Australia?

The answer is: Because God couldn't find three wise men and a virgin.

Women and men

Social researchers are now seriously asking whether men have wised up to the fact that Australian women will give them the sex without the commitment. They suggest the increased trend to living together is ruining women's chances to have kids.

Offended men have struck back arguing that women are too fussy and too demanding, some openly suggesting women are selfishly waiting for Mr Perfect when they should be settling for a Mr Good Enough who is keen on kids.

A pregnant woman
Some are taking feminists to task for stigmatising motherhood
Some prominent Australians - including women - are blaming feminism for our fertility problems. Last year broadcaster Virginia Haussegger wrote an article in the Melbourne Age newspaper about what she called her "sad, barren state". It's still being discussed and dissected.

She said motherhood was presented to her generation as a handicap and a hindrance.

She was angry that she took the word of feminist mothers who she says told her she could have it all when they should have been warning her about the biological clock.

She was called "petulant, a brat, and shameful", but she also got appreciative letters from women who felt as angry as she did.

This debate has got so side-tracked into vitriolic fights about feminism and female fussiness that the real issues are getting lost along the way.

The fact is that for those Australian women who have got a bloke and who do want children there are some issues that limit how many they are willing to have for themselves or for the country.

One is the fact that Australia - apart from the United States - is the only developed country in the world not to have a mandatory minimum paid maternity leave.

Newborn baby
Australia does less to help parents than most developed countries
While government employees receive up to 12 weeks' paid leave, those in the private sector are usually expected to give up a job and earnings and to lose out on the career trajectory if they want to spend any time at all with their new-born children.

Well, it's worth the sacrifice you may say. I agree, but then there's the issue of going back to a new job if you can get it.

That requires childcare. My child just turned two and I have had her name on more than five childcare centre waiting lists since I was eight weeks pregnant. We are still waiting for a place. That's three years and still waiting.

There's also the problem of valuing children. I lived in India for many years and I was endlessly delighted by the way that kids were worshipped as mini-gods in the country.

At restaurants a waiter would often be assigned to play with the little ones, and kids were also welcome at weddings, parties, funerals and functions.

Not so in Australia. There are now new housing developments that ban children, many restaurants and cafes cringe when a child approaches, two local parks in my area have removed their play equipment and there's a growing voice amongst the childless-by-choice movement to campaign against any suggestion of preferential leave at work for mothers and fathers.


Then there's the fact that we are time poor. Let me ruin a popular stereotype about Australia: We are not a laid-back nation of beach bums, we are a nation of workaholics.

We new parents know that once we have a child it may be living with us until it is 25. It's a sobering thought
According to the International Labour Organisation, Australia ranks with the US and rivals Japan and New Zealand in providing the world's hardest workers. Many Aussies are stressed, anxious and struggling to balance family and work.

Like parents the world over we are juggling to keep all the balls in the air and finding they often drop. This week my child has been sick, my husband had a work deadline and I had a business trip. The only thing that got me through it was knowing I was not the only one living the insane pace.

There has also been a massive privatisation of our health and education systems and that means it's getting more and more expensive to bring up a child.

The explosion in the property market and the hike in university fees ensures that most Aussie teenagers can no longer afford to move out of home at 18 like they used to. We new parents know that once we have a child it may be living with us until it is 25. It's a sobering thought.

We also lack social services for new mothers and long ago we lost the extended family unit that ensured childhood was shared amongst relatives. Australian grandparents do a lot of child minding but they quite rightly want their own lives as well.

Is it any wonder we aren't breeding like flies?

Laying off

The buzz about babies has dissipated a little in the last few weeks. Perhaps the politicians are giving us a rest for the holidays or perhaps it's because all their coaching us into the bedrooms is giving us a mighty headache.

Or perhaps it's because we just don't feel their urgency. Three-quarters of Australians live in a tiny slice of land close to the coast, so most of us feel our streets, suburbs and lives are getting more crowded rather than old and empty.

A recent survey showed 54% of Aussies don't actually want a larger population. Maybe our treasurer realised he needed to back off when he recently toned down the "have a baby for Australia" message and instead urged people to work past the retirement age.

It's lucky for him that he did. For if I hear Peter Costello, our prime minister, or any other man tell me one more time to breed for my country I think I'll throw something at them.

For you see at the moment, I'm heavy, puffy, hot, bothered and suffering chronic heartburn. I am doing my patriotic duty. I'm eight months pregnant in a time of year it's rather hard to keep one's cool.

While I'm healthy, happy and tremendously excited about the upcoming birth of my second child, every time I hear a male leader urge me to have three I scream: You do it!

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.


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