Graduate and Childless


James Franklin and Sarah Chee Tueno

Quadrant 47 (7/8) July/Aug 2003, 52-55.


There is nothing much to worry about in declining fertility, according to Russell Blackford (`Is declining fertility a problem?’, Quadrant, March) and Paddy McGuinness (`Fertility decline and population panic’, Quadrant, Sept 2002). The planet has plenty of people, and will have long after zero population growth is reached around 2050. And if people choose to have no or few children, there is no good reason why other people should regret it or encourage them to get on with achieving their quota. If it does turn out that the baby boomers have to work in their seventies because they have not bred enough young people to keep them in luxury, well, the inconvenience will fit the crime.

In the big picture – if we consider just total fertility – that is surely correct. But if we look at the breakdown of the figures, at how fertility differs across the population, there is some cause for concern. Internationally, some European populations are getting down towards 1 baby per woman, or half replacement rate (meaning that the population halves every generation), while some Third World countries will still have fast-growing populations in the foreseeable future. In Somalia, assuming the few statisticians still on deck there are getting their facts right, there are over 7 babies per woman, illustrating the sad fact that babies are being born typically in the places it is worst to be born in. Unless the Marines effect regime change in a lot more countries than at present looks likely, the world population will become more and more concentrated in dysfunctional states.

Locally, there are some interesting variations among subgroups. Atheists, for example, have a much higher rate of childlessness than Christians and Jews (and Muslims have a much lower rate). That is not necessarily cause for concern - it seems to be largely a matter of choice rather than divine judgement - but it does perhaps cast some light on the puzzlement of the unbelievers at the phenomenon of the survival of religion, despite the mass conversions from it.

The differences in fertility rates with education levels is also striking. The effect of graduation is dramatic. Of women with no tertiary qualifications, the average number of children is 2.3, for those with one degree, 1.8, for those with a higher degree, 1.3 – that is, half a child off per degree. (Figures are for 40-year-olds, from the 1996 census – the question was not asked in the 2001 census.). The figures for childlessness tell the same story: for the three groups, 11%, 22% and 34% respectively were childless.

Before deciding whether to worry about the phenomenon, it needs to be discovered whether it is largely a matter of choice or not. McGuinness and Blackford have accepted the feminist thesis that the alternative to “socialisation” into motherhood is a choice of an independent child-free lifestyle. That is not correct. There are surveys of childbearing intentions and outcomes, but the figures are not easy to interpret, since people change their minds, there are subtle differences between “wish” and “intention”, some intentions are a matter of coming to terms with reality, and so on. But it does seem overall that women, and especially educated women, are having substantially fewer children than they wish to have (over and above cases where this proves impossible for medical reasons). It is fair to say around half of non-medical childlessness is not properly called chosen. Projections, necessarily somewhat rubbery, are that 20-25% of today’s twenty-year-olds will remain childless, though few of them intend to do so. There is more focussed research in the United States. Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children finds that nearly half of high-flying American corporate women are childless at age 40, often partnerless as well, and that it is mostly not from choice. On the contrary, many of them are willing to spend $US9000 on courses on how to find a partner.

The reason for worrying about low fertility has nothing to do with the wellbeing of the planet, the economy or society. The concern is that people are unable to fulfil their wishes.

Why educated women should be failing to have babies they want to have is easily appreciated by comparing the situation of a typical woman graduate of today with her grandmother. Fifty years ago, an intelligent woman from an adequately well-off family had some training by the age of 21 aimed at a “good job for a girl” – teaching, nursing, librarianship or secretarial work. She moved into a secure job, which had its demands but was confined to a fixed location in a fixed 40 hours a week. That left plenty of time over several years to get on with the necessary socialising to find a husband. There was no dithering with live-in relationships, either. Negotiations proceeded on a no ring, no deal basis, and any girl who scabbed for lower pay and conditions soon felt pressure from the union. The system had a heavy cost for women trapped in bad marriages, but it did get the Baby Boom rolling, with well over 3 babies per woman.

The way we live now is more unsettled. A woman graduate is reasonably established in a career in her late twenties and ready to think about marriage and children. It can happen, but the hazards along the road are many and there is not much room for error. The most serious problems relate to time.

The most obvious one is biological clock time. Medical infertility is around 5% for 20-year-olds, 10% for 30-year-olds, and pushing 20% for 35-year-olds, so anyone leaving decisions to the late thirties is taking a risk. Mr Right has to be identified, got up the aisle (or secular equivalent) and convinced he wants children, in a very few years. Learned discussions of these matters in terms of people’s strategies, choices, values and risk aversions tend to make the implicit assumption that normal people have a number of choices of potential partners. Everyone really knows that is not true. Finding someone worth marrying who thinks the same about oneself is simply difficult, and one is not notably unlucky if one has no such chance in a five-year period. Again, a woman married at 20 can have another try if necessary, but a 30-year-old graduate has to get it right first time. It is a tall order, given that towards half of marriages end in divorce.

Just as much a hazard, though less well recognised, are the time demands of graduate work. Modern work is demanding in a way that makes it hard to resist its demands even in a good cause. It is too interesting, for one thing. Assembly-line work and copy typing have disappeared, and graduates get the pick of the crop of the many fascinating jobs around. The demands of those careers are different from those old jobs that just required the hamster to stay on its wheel. The task is to get the report/software/widget out the door in perfect working order before deadline, and the team does whatever it takes. No-one lets the team down by whingeing about 40-hour weeks, and if personal relationships have to be reduced to a series of mobile phone messages for the duration, that’s how it goes. The reward for success is first call to solve the next crisis, and a permanent state of being on call, a state not conducive to romantic weekends. It is easy to become far too good at what the job ads call “time management skills”. The atmosphere of constant change in the normal workplace, with its “commitment to excellence” in client-centred corporate restructuring but not much mention of loyalty, respect or decency, inevitably leaks into personal relationships.

The next time problem lies in getting a man before all the single, straight, solvent and sane ones are gone. In the late twenties age group, they are still there. The figures show equal numbers of unmatched female and male graduates. But a girl needs to be quick. The competition is not only with her own kind. If a guy is any good, there’ll be 20-year-old bimbos and asset-rich divorcees circling. Some of them may have put more effort into interpersonal skills than the graduate who has been boning up on portfolio optimization and office politics. Someone on assignment in New York is not ideally placed to outwit a more leisured competitor back home who’s keen to develop her listening skills some more. (“It must be so hard to maintain a long-distance relationship. Actually yes, I am free this evening.”) With the added effect of women “marrying up” and men “down”, the pool of unpartnered graduates soon becomes unbalanced, and by age early forties women outnumber men nearly three to two. (There are plenty of unpartnered “skilled vocational” men, though, and huge numbers of unpartnered, unemployed, poorly educated men.)

Bettina Arndt has called attention to an even less recognised time problem – the years many people waste in live-in relationships going nowhere. A recurrent scenario is the long-term relationship of a late-twenties couple where the two partners have differing expectations. A sure sign of the self-deception involved is the remark “Who needs a piece of paper anyway?”, a question which misses the fact that if marriage is society’s language of commitment, to avoid it is to say “We’re together for the moment, but make a better offer and we’ll certainly consider it.” The menage drags on depressingly like Summer of the Seventeenth Doll until the man suddenly marries someone else and the woman begins several years alone. Any woman still thinking that men are like buses and there’ll be another one along in a minute has another think coming. A woman who wants children does not have those years to waste.

And finally, even if a man is found, it may take some time to pin him down. “Commitmentphobia” is a widely reported phenomenon. It is hardly a surprise, and there is more to it than just a wish for free sex. A majority of potential couples have at least one with divorced parents, often leading to natural doubts and anxieties about tying the knot. Thirty-year-olds mostly have in addition a history of a few temporary relationships, which can lead not only to doubts about new ones but to attitudes full of escape clauses and mental reservations, which are no basis for the solid commitment that child-rearing entails. And experience is starting to build of contemporaries’ marriages that have ended in asset splits and custody battles.

Most of these time problems are doubled for someone with two degrees. The unsettled and low-earning years of postgraduate study, possibly overseas, take a large chunk out of the fertile years.

After the time problems come the money problems. It is easy to think that since graduates have good incomes and the rich have always had fewer children than the poor, money cannot really be an issue. A closer look suggests otherwise. It is true that graduation is quite a good financial investment, in the long term. A male graduate averages some $425,000 more income over a lifetime than a non-graduate (though it is much less for women). That is substantial, but it is not as good as it looks, since it does not allow for later entry into the real estate market and superannuation, nor does it take into account that fact that a graduate, being more intelligent than average, could probably have earned more even without graduating. More importantly, most of the extra money is earned later in life, well after the time when decisions on children must be made. A 35-year-old graduate couple probably have a good income, but they do not have reserves and their jobs are not secure. Taking on a mortgage and a child when the remaining breadwinner is likely to be retrenched at any moment is a large risk.

It is in this context that the potential mother has to take the additional risk of committing career suicide to have a first child. Quite apart from the heavy direct costs of a child, the opportunity costs to a woman of foregone lifetime earnings are $160,000, one third of lifetime earnings. That is well down on earlier estimates, because of the recent better availability of part-time work. It is however an underestimate for graduates, and in addition a female graduate in a field like management or academia may be giving up or postponing the chance to be a highflyer, which is one of the attractions of those fields. The erratic maternity leave situation, child-punitive tax system and child-care expenses add to the problems. The baby is postponed.

On top of that, the government rewards the years of income that a graduate has sacrificed to study by making HECS debt the first call on a graduate’s income. “It’s taken out of your pay, it makes things like planning a family or mortgage impossible in the medium term”, says one graduand. In one of the scams for which the baby boomers have become notorious, HECS is not payable by the fat cats raking it in thanks to the quality degrees they got free of charge in the Whitlam era, but only by recent graduates of the dilapidated, overcrowded and postmodernism-infected university system of the present. (Nor is it payable by holders of scholarships to the well-funded, elite and results-focussed Australian Institute of Sport, who make their money early.)


We have a few recommendations, naturally.

It is not easy to say whether changes of policy can make any substantial difference in matters as personal as this, where money considerations are not the most important factor in decisions. Singapore – always a country worth looking at as a possible model of the future world – has similar figures to Australia’s and has taken action, including money payments and a state dating agency, to little effect. On the other hand, Australian experience in the Depression, when birthrates fell to almost present levels in the face of economic bad times, suggests that financial risks do affect the decision to have babies.

It is easy to think of ways to regulate the employment market, but apart from the general reasons against doing so, maternity leave provisions already make the relevant part of the labour market highly regulated. While some employers could well recognise the benefits of flexible arrangements aimed at keeping valuable staff who wish to combine work with children, in general it is not the business of employers to bear the costs of social benefits such as the long-term outcomes of childbearing. On excessive working hours – where Australia is among the worst in the world for real hours worked – the ACTU’s “reasonable hours” campaign has had some success in gaining legislative rights for workers to ask for caps on hours, and there is probably no point in going further. Attempts to beat workaholism by prohibition will only cause a rash of unregulated speakeasies where sad patrons furtively slip in and type through the night.

Opponents of HECS have used low graduate fertility as an argument for its abolition, but, as Andrew Norton points out in his analysis for the Centre for Independent Studies, abolition provides incentives for no-one. Rewards must go to the right people: any woman who has a baby should have her HECS debt cancelled. This may encourage some to bring forward the decision to have children, but the main purpose is simply to restore equity. HECS debt is premised on the ability of graduates to make money. If graduates give up financial prospects to do something else that is for the long-term good of the community, the premise on which they are charged is no longer operative.

Every year at budget time, ingenuity is expended on how to gouge more millions out of (present and future) university students. Some of that could go on working out how to increase the charge business presently pays universities for the supply of graduates. The current rate is zero.

Paid maternity leave needs to be sorted out, as a charge on the taxpayer. It was much debated in 2002, but very little resulted. To say that it costs the economy too much is like HIH saying it could not afford to reserve enough money to cover future claims – it is dodgy accounting that foregrounds present costs and ignores future ones.

Undergraduates should be offered courses in life skills, with the facts about their possible futures laid out.

Much of the solution, though, must be at the personal level. If a graduate woman finds herself getting along well with firemen, maybe she should go with that, whatever her girlfriends might think. And whoever she finds herself getting on well with, she should discuss expectations of children earlier rather than later.

Feminism is a tricky issue. There is no need to play dumb or play doormat, and worthwhile men are not “threatened” by women who can look after their own interests. But any women who think feminism means never having to say sorry for looking after number one could tone it down a little. For some, lessons on how to provide positive feedback could be more valuable than assertiveness training.

For the firemen, we recommend a part-time degree in psychology.

Successful smart men who find themselves facing an embarrassment of riches in the marriage market might bear in mind that someone of equal intelligence is more exciting to be with, in both the short and long term.

People in semi-committed relationships need to discover if they are going anywhere, and make plans accordingly. Women thinking of entering such relationships could cut down on their consumption of airport novels with heroines who say  “I want it all.”

Something special has to be done for postgraduate research students. At present they are making too many sacrifices for the common good. The transmission of highly technical knowledge relies on them - someone with a first degree really knows nothing about knowledge from the inside and is only of use for further training. Many of the brightest first-degree graduates do undertake years of research training in their mid-twenties. It is not a specially good investment for them financially in the long term, and in return for their hard work – and real thinking is a lot harder than most jobs - they are treated as “still just students”, lucky to get a scholarship of $25,000 and some pin money from tutoring. Then they face a precarious job situation at the end of it (and if the field of training has gone off the boil, you can't retrain in quantum computation overnight) and the compression of the timescale available for life choices. Research training (in real subjects, anyway) needs to be treated as a real job, paid the sort of money that allows marriage and a mortgage.


James Franklin lectures in mathematics at UNSW. Sarah Chee Tueno is a recent UNSW graduate.

An academic article on this topic is available.