Expert urges Kiwis to have children before falling fertility rate leads to unbalanced population

"Please have children."

That's the plea from a New Zealand researcher as fertility rates drop throughout the western world, including in New Zealand. 

The number of babies born in New Zealand has been steadily declining since the 1960s. And 2020 is no different with the average woman having fewer than two children - the number needed to ensure replacement of the population - in her lifetime. 

As education and work opportunities for women increase and the cost of raising a child goes up, family sizes are shrinking. 

But despite the economic challenges, a low birth rate has been hailed by climate change campaigners for years. The environmental impacts from overpopulation are huge and, as a result, there is a growing childfree movement. 

But Dr Pushpa Wood, who is the director of Massey University's financial education and research centre, says the falling birth rate will cause real issues in the next 30 years. 

Wood says if the downwards trend continues New Zealand will be left with an ageing population, more retired people needing care, and fewer people to care for them. 

This could have devastating impacts on the country, and she says the Government needs to take action by incentivizing people to have children.

So why are we having fewer children?

A major factor in people having fewer children is cost. New Zealand is one of the most expensive places to raise a child, with a recent report ranking it as the second most expensive OECD country, second only to the United States. 

"Education is becoming more expensive, housing is becoming more expensive and so is healthcare. So when you count all those costs for the family… it does actually put people on a slightly more careful footing," she says. 

Wood says young people are putting much more thought into when they start their families, compared to older generations who tended to have kids early because it was expected.

"For my generation being a mother was your first priority, whereas now being a mother is in addition to education, career, and financial independence."

"We now have a generation, thank God, who is saying, "That's [motherhood] not the ultimate aim of my life'," she says. 

"Young generations have the luxury of not having the heavy social and family pressure [to have children]."

How do we fix it? 

Immigration is often the go to solution when it comes to population growth or replacement. New Zealand already relies on immigrants to fill a number of jobs in construction, healthcare, tourism and hospitality. 

But Wood says we can't rely on immigration alone, instead urging the Government to offer incentives to people who have children. 

Things like increased parental leave and means-tested financial support for childcare can help, she says. 

Wood also backed initiatives such as the "baby box" which the Finnish Government provides to new mothers. The box has clothes, sheets, toys and can even be used as a bed. 

However, Massey University sociology professor Paul Spoonley says incentivizing people to have children doesn't work. 

As education and work opportunities for women increase and the cost of raising a child goes up, family sizes are shrinking.
As education and work opportunities for women increase and the cost of raising a child goes up, family sizes are shrinking. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I think the possibility of reversing our fertility decline is unrealistic. Germany threw about $20 billion euro at trying… and it completely failed," Spoonley told Newshub. 

"They [Germany] did a bundle of things including more generous maternity and paternity leave, free childcare, tax credits, support including financial support from employers, a payment to every family that has a child...and none of that has worked." 

Spoonley also backed immmigration as a solution, saying the key is attracting middle class, highly skilled migrants to New Zealand. 

And when it comes to our birth rate, he says it will likely get worse because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Researchers in Europe asked couples under the age of 35 their intentions to have babies and two-thirds of them say they will not have a baby any time soon."

"We are rightly focused on the public health issues during the acute phase and then the economic consequences but that's not the full extent of what we should expect post-COVID."

Spoonley says thankfully New Zealand's response to the pandemic has made us very attractive to migrants. 

"The fact that other countries aren't doing a very good job (dealing with the pandemic) puts New Zealand in an even better light."

Is it good that people are having fewer kids?

For years experts have warned of the numerous environmental issues caused by overpopulation. 

Victoria University of Wellington climate scientist James Renwick says while there is an economic consequence to a low birth rate, the environmental impacts can be very positive. 

Renwick pointed to studies which found the single biggest thing a family could do to reduce its carbon footprint was have one less child. 

He says if we don't do something to manage overpopulation soon  the "consequences for humanity could be pretty dire". 

"A lot of people could die through starvation, water security, displacement, conflict and wars. One way or another the global population cannot keep increasing." 


He also acknowledged that the change needed is much greater than having two kids instead of three. To make a real difference the entire economy has to move from continual growth to a circular economy, with an emphasis on recycling and reducing consumption, he said. 

"It's not easy to just switch that's not something that can be done overnight but we do need to move in that direction."

He also pointed to immigration as a way to stop the population declining, suggesting climate refugees as a possible solution. 

"Some Pacific Island countries may well become uninhabitable through the rest of the century… so there might be a lot of people who want to come to New Zealand because they can't live where they are. 

So how many children should people be having if they want to keep the economy healthy and protect the environment? 

Unfortunately there isn't a simple answer to that. 

"The last thing I want to do is suggest to other people how many children they should have. It isn't one size fits all, this has to be done collectively across society," Renwick said. 

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