Australia’s birth rate falls in 2022
New data from the ABS shows Australia’s birth rate at a near-record low, continuing a decades-long trend. Demographer Glenn Capuano explains the history of Australia’s birth rate, how the story differs geographically, and the role it plays in understanding our future population.
The ABS has just released data on the number of babies born in Australia in 2022, and the associated fertility rate. The 2022 calendar year saw 300,684 births registered Australia-wide, which was a decline of just over 9,000 from 2021, and about 15,000 below the peak recorded in 2018 of 315,147 – the largest number of births ever recorded in Australia. All data here are from the ABS Births, Australia publication.
Australia’s low birth rate is mirrored by similar nations
The resultant fertility rate based on these births is 1.63. That is an internationally comparable figure, which represents the average number of babies a woman would have in her lifetime if the current age-based fertility rates applied over her whole life. (Which they never do, of course.) 1.63 is historically low, but on-par with other western nations. It is high compared to places like Japan and Spain (both 1.30) and Russia (1.50), and similar to the United Kingdom and USA (both around 1.6-1.7). (Source: Wikipedia.)
Australia’s birth rate has been low for decades
1.63 is only just above the lowest fertility rate recorded in Australia, which was in 2020, with 1.58. Our fertility rate has been mostly below “replacement level” since the late 1970s. Replacement level is generally regarded as 2.10 – enough to replace both parents in the population, with a factor for the infant mortality rate (also very low in Australia, so the traditional replacement level accepted as 2.1 is probably a little high, and replacement level is more likely around 2.03-2.05 – nevertheless we are well below that).
The following chart from the ABS Births Australia publication, with annotations by me, should be familiar to many who’ve attended my demographic briefings for our Local Government partners across the country. I include this in most presentations because the fertility rate is so important in understanding the changing age structure of your area. We’re getting older as a nation, in part because our birth rate is so low in historical terms. The chart also neatly summarises the rollercoaster of change in fertility rates over the past 90 years.
The fertility rate peaked at 3.55 babies per female in 1961, really the last year of the post World War II baby boom (from where we get the term “baby boomers” and associated phrases – it’s not a derogatory term!). 1961 saw 239,986 births in Australia – less than in 2022, but from a population of just over 10 million, compared to 26 million now. The children born in this peak year are now aged 62, and approaching retirement. We’re only a few years away from the last of the baby boomers entering their retirement years. The introduction of the contraceptive pill and rapidly increasing female workforce participation through the 1970s dropped the fertility rate under replacement level by the late 1970s, and there it stayed, until a brief rise to 2.02 in 2009. This was the peak of the “baby bonus” era, after the then treasurer Peter Costello exhorted us to have “one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country” in 2003. Once the baby bonus was ended in 2014, the birth rate fell again to the current very low levels, showing only a brief bounce-back during COVID-19 to 1.70, now down again in 2022. Those baby bonus kids are now all in secondary school, with many areas now recording declining enrollments in primary schools due to the recent birth rate declines.
Birth rates across the states and territories
The fertility rate is not the same across the country, of course. Rural areas tend to have higher rates than urban areas. Fringe suburbs of our urban areas are places people move to when they start a family, so some of these areas have much higher rates. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a much higher birth rate: 2.35 in 2022 (as published in Births Australia by the ABS), well above replacement level and stable over the past 10 years. So areas with high First Nations populations will also have a higher fertility rate overall. Here are the figures by state and territory.
|Total fertility rate by state or territory of usual residence|
The high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population means that the Northern Territory is the jurisdiction with the highest fertility rate, but only just above Queensland, and it’s fallen substantially in all areas. Tasmania is the lowest, at 1.49, but Victoria only slightly higher at 1.51. The 10 year comparison to 2012 shows starkly how much it’s fallen from the baby bonus era peak (which was in 2009, but still high at 2012).
Australian’s are having children later in life
The other profound change which has occurred over many decades is the age at which we have children. Both age of mother and age of father has increased substantially since the baby boom era. In 1975 the peak age of fertility for females was around 25 years; it’s now 32 years. And in 1975 we’d already seen substantial declines in fertility since the baby boom. Quoting the ABS media release: “In 1975, less than 20 per cent of births were to mothers who were between 30 and 39 years old, but now nearly 60 per cent of births are to mothers in this age group.” This is an amazing figure and is likely related in significant extent to the cost of living, housing etc. and the need for two partners to earn an income to pay for a dwelling.
In contrast, teenage mothers are now at an all-time low of 6.8 births per 1,000 women, less than one-third of what they were in the 1970s. While birth rates for mothers over the age of 40 has almost tripled.(Age-specific fertility rates are shown on the scale below as a rate per 1,000 females.)
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2022), Births, Australia; chart by .id (informed decisions)
Overall, the chart shows that the age at which we have children has flattened out. While there is a much lower peak which has shifted to older ages, women now have babies over a much wider range of years than previously.
Fertility rates are an important input into population forecasts
Fertility rates are a key input to .id’s population forecasts. Migration is increasingly the dominant driver for population growth in many of our fastest growing areas; this is in part due to a lower birth rate. In places such as Tasmania and many regional towns, a pattern of outward migration of young people to larger cities combined with a falling birth rate means some of areas are forecast to shift from ‘natural increase’ (growth in population from the net of births and deaths), to ‘natural decrease’ (the opposite) in the years ahead.
Many Local Governments subscribe to forecast.id; if you’re interested in what the forecasts show about where the local population in your area is headed, jump over to forecast.id.com.au.
.id (informed decisions) maintains nation-wide forecasts down to small areas, available for use by government and industry sectors alike. Learn more here →