The Age

Fertility crisis: why you can't blame the blokes

January 17 2003
The Age

Change will not be easy. Low partnering levels are no longer the sole province of educated men and women.

The key drop in fertility is among low-income people. That's not a commitment issue, writes Bob Birrell.

Children barely appear in the lives of young men today. Slightly fewer than one in three men aged 30-34 have had a child by the age of 30. For their fathers' generation it was the reverse: two-thirds had had a child by 30.

When the journal People and Place published these findings last week, some people welcomed them for drawing attention to the role of men in explaining Australia's below-replacement fertility rate. But part of the reaction was censorious. Media and talkback commentary on the issue included accusations that men no longer wanted to take on fatherhood. One typical (off-camera) comment from a young female TV interviewer was that her newsroom was full of ambitious, tertiary-educated women who could not find men interested in serious relationships. Young men were said to prefer their increased sexual opportunities over long-term commitment - with important consequences for Australia's fertility rates.

Much of this kind of comment comes from the ranks of tertiary-educated women, and it is no surprise that they link the fertility downturn to a lack of willing men. Nearly one in four women aged 25-29 holds a bachelor degree or a higher qualification, as do 21 per cent of women aged 30-34. The equivalent male share is far lower. About 20 per cent more women aged in their late 20s and early 30s have degrees than men in the same age group.

Since tertiary-educated women are much more likely to delay entering marriage than other women, there are large numbers of older, educated women in the partnering marketplace. Because they tend to look for men who match their qualifications, the competition is tough.

Perhaps some middle-class men do exploit their bargaining power. But this is not why Australia's fertility rate is reducing. The decline in fertility is most significant among men and women who are not tertiary-educated. Whereas this latter group was once very fertile, its rate of partnering is now converging towards that of tertiary educated men and women.

In 2001, nearly 40 per cent of men aged 30-34 and 60 per cent of men aged 25-29 were not married or in a de facto partnership. Since partnership usually precedes parenthood, this convergence towards ever-lower partnering rates is the key to understanding the decline in Australia's fertility rate.

It could be argued that this decline reflects the unwillingness of low-income men to take on family responsibilities. But it is doubtful whether most of them chose to do so because they were enjoying their manly freedom. Rather, the explanation has more to do with the economic circumstances young men face.

The advantages of being in a secure, loving relationship are compelling, and especially so for those of modest circumstances. By sharing a household, a couple on moderate incomes can obtain much higher-quality housing. Buying a house and maintaining a mortgage usually requires two incomes. Sharing also brings companionship and status.

What then explains the reluctance to partner? It partly reflects female attitudes. Women across the social spectrum can afford to be choosier these days. Most have their own income and so are not under the same pressure to partner as in the past. Men on low or insecure incomes do not rate highly. This is one reason why such men are much less likely to be partnered than those with higher incomes.

Equally, men on low or insecure incomes are likely to be wary of taking on the responsibility of marriage and parenthood.

Many men are poor - in 2001, 42 per cent of men aged 25-44 earnt less than $32,000 a year. Only two-thirds of men in this age group were in full-time work. Young men considering marriage could hardly be unaware of the risks of marital breakdown or the long-term costs, especially when children are involved. They may also be dimly aware that marital breakdown is more likely among lower than higher income couples.

Quite properly, the Australian Government requires men to pay maintenance to their former partners and children. The Child Support Agency enforces, where necessary, payments until the child reaches 18. This is done to a strict formula involving a payment of 18 per cent of the payer's taxable income for the first child, less various allowances. By mid-2001, 612,332 payers were on the agency's book, almost all of whom were men. The number has grown by 30,000-40,000 a year over the past decade.

In these circumstances, single males might be casualties, not beneficiaries, of the marriage marketplace.

Sadly, the prospects of partnership do not improve with age. For men in their 30s nearly half the single women of the same age are single parents. This situation naturally complicates the partnering process.

Change will not be easy. Low partnering levels are no longer the sole province of educated men and women.

A few thousand dollars in baby bonuses or greater subsidies for child minding will not do the trick. Much more dramatic change is required to achieve an upturn in Australia's fertility rate.

Bob Birrell is director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, which publishes People and Place.

Copyright 2002 The Age Company Ltd.