Back in 1872, the world was a very different place. The Met was opened in New York, (I ran around there on the way through New York in June with the children – what a great museum, I’ll have to go back there and spend some more time there one day); the first officially recognised (by FIFA) international football match was held (Scotland held the English to a 0-0 draw); Ulysses Grant won re-election as President of the USA; Claude Monet began painting the piece that would give its name to the Impressionist movement; and responsible government was granted to the Cape of Good Hope by the British. In New Zealand, 1872 saw the end of the Maori Land Wars, a series of conflicts that stretched back to the mid-1840s and had been fought throughout much of the North Island between Māori tribes and the colonial government and its Māori allies.
In that year, New Zealand’s crude birth rate, the number of live births for every 1,000 people, was about 40. That number tracked slightly upwards over the next few years, until in about 1875, it started to decline. And decline. And decline. By the mid-1930s it had reached about 18 live births per 1000 people. And then the baby boom happened and the crude birth rate jumped up to 28 births per 1000 population until the early 1960s. And then it started to decline again. Despite a few bumps on the way, the current crude fertility rate in New Zealand is about 12. That is, in 145 years, the number of births per 1000 people has essentially quartered.
At the same time, the total fertility rate (the number of children a woman will on average have in her lifetime) dropped to 1.87 in 2016. For about 25 years this had flatlined at a shade over two until 2015. This rate is now the lowest in our history. As Massey University Associate Professor Paul Spoonley said:
“The first thing to look at is delayed fertility, so women who are having children are getting older, and they often have to make a choice between their job and children. We know that increasingly, higher-educated women are choosing not to have children.”
This is a trend that is not just limited to New Zealand, but is observable throughout the western world and in large parts of East Asia. The interesting point is that higher education is becoming more common – universities have a vested interest in this of course while they adhere to a “seat-filling” mentality. The time spent in education for men and women is increasing, thus delaying the age at which we are starting to think about having families. At the same time, the perceived needs that we must fulfil before having a family are increasing, thus pushing back the time that we can start having a family. But unfortunately, the biological imperatives haven’t changed. So expect the increasing reliance on IVF to continue, and don’t expect birth rates to rise anytime soon.