Uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to Australia’s fertility rate falling to its lowest level on record with warnings it may never recover, leaving the nation with a recession-sized hole in its population make-up.
Through 2020, there were 294,369 births registered across the country, a 3.7 per cent or 11,500 fall on 2019. The fertility rate dropped almost 5 per cent to an all-time low of 1.58 births per woman, a fall larger than Australia experienced during the darkest years of the Great Depression.
Australia’s fertility rate has fallen to a record low in the wake of COVID-19.Credit:iStock
It was the lowest number of births registered in the country since 2007 and down by 6.6 per cent on the peak number of births recorded in 2018.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported the biggest falls were in Victoria, where there were 3846 fewer babies, a 4.9 per cent drop in births, and in South Australia where births also fell by 4.9 per cent or 952 babies.
Across NSW, there was 3.4 per cent fall, or 3330 babies. Tasmania defied the trend, up by 1 per cent or 54 births.
Demographer Liz Allen from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods said the nation’s fertility rate had been falling for the past 50 years, but a range of factors were now making it even more difficult for prospective parents to start a family.
She said the financial insecurity caused by the COVID recession now overlaid ongoing issues including the high cost of housing which required both parents to work to raise enough money to buy a home, anxiety over climate change and growing gender equality.
COVID would weigh on the nation’s population profile forever.
“Potential parents are being hammered on all sides, and struggling to survive in a climate that directly translates into missing children,” she said.
“Potential parents’ active choices to start a family or the size of that family is slipping away from them and that will have long-term repercussions for them and for the country.
“People have postponed having children and we could see a lift next year, but I suspect that what we have seen is a life-long impact on our population.”
The lowest fertility rate in NSW is across Sydney’s CBD and inner south. It has fallen by 24 per cent to less than one over the past decade. While the number of people living in the area has climbed by more than 92,500 since 2010, the number of babies born to local residents has fallen by 328.
It’s a similar story in the city’s west. While Parramatta’s population has swelled by 100,569 over the past 10 years, the number of babies born has fallen by 134.
The largest fall in fertility nationally has occurred in Melbourne’s inner city, down almost 28 per cent since 2010. The fertility rate is a national-low of 0.91. Across Melbourne’s inner suburbs there have been falls in fertility of more than 20 per cent over the past decade.
All these areas, however, have recorded large population increases over the period, driven by internal and overseas migration.
Not one part of Melbourne now has a fertility rate above 2, with falls in growing areas such as the south-east and western suburbs.
Across Australia only one region – the north-west of Western Australia, which has a large Indigenous population – has recorded an increase in fertility rates since 2010.
The bureau’s demography director, Beidar Cho, said the fall in fertility could be attributed to COVID-19 disruptions.
She said not only had the fertility rate fallen, but the median age of mothers had lifted to a high of 31.6 years. The highest median age is 32.4 years in the ACT while the youngest mums are in the Northern Territory at 30.3 years.
“The long-term decline in fertility of younger mums as well as the continued increase in fertility of older mums reflects a shift towards later childbearing,” she said.
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