New Zealanders are having far fewer kids - here's what that means

You will change your mind. But you would make a great mum. Who is going to look after you when you're old?   

These are phrases Zoe, who is childfree by choice, has heard repeatedly over the years.   

The 34-year-old Auckland-based professional says despite never having an interest in children, she's faced endless pressure to become a mum. 

"I don't find children cute or interesting for a start. I just never have so I guess that makes it a relatively easy decision right off the bat," Zoe told Newshub.    

She's not alone either, data shows New Zealand's birth rate has been steadily declining for the past few decades.  

For Zoe the decision was fairly easy, but for others it's driven by cost or environmental concerns.

"When I was being raised it was never a focus or an endpoint or goal...Not that I was ever discouraged either, it just wasn't focused on."   

There are also more concrete deterrents for her such as the impact it would have on her career, free time, and finances.  

"I value my lifestyle; I like peace and quiet, I like having my financial security, and having my disposable income to do whatever I want with.  

"The lifestyle impacts are massive. I'm a very independent person. I like to get out and do things and I just can't even imagine the extra admin to have to facilitate someone else in that mix." 

But there's also a cynical reason. Zoe says she doesn't feel right bringing a child into the world.   

"Looking around at the world, I don't think it's a place that I would want to bring someone else into, quite frankly.  

"I'm not saying I don't enjoy life or anything like that, but it is very challenging. The political landscape across the globe looks very, in my opinion, bleak.   

"There's so much conflict. There are so many things that aren't nice in the world. I just personally don't agree that it would be wise to bring someone else into that."   

Fertility rates dropping across the globe 

New Zealand isn't alone in its low fertility rates, several other countries are dealing with the same trend, and it is causing concerns about the future of many economies and workforces.  

Research published in the Lancet Medical Journal earlier in the month said by 2050, three-quarters of countries are forecast to fall below the population replacement birth rate of 2.1 babies per women. In Aotearoa, we are already well below that, sitting at 1.56 births per woman in 2023. Our fertility rate has been below 2.1 percent since 2013 and we rely heavily on migration to fill the gap.  

While the past few years have been plagued with issues and climate change is an ever-present concern, the global trend of people forgoing kids is intriguing experts. People have had kids during many uncertain times in history, so is the global environment really the main reason or is it complex? 

Sociologist and emeritus professor at Massey University Paul Spoonley believes there are four main reasons for the decline.   

"Internationally it's quite clear - the two things that initially triggered the decline of fertility were the increase in educational credentials of women and their participation in work," Spoonley said.  

"I think there are two further factors that have come into play, particularly in a country like New Zealand. The third one is the affordability of children. Children are really expensive. Then the final one is the environmental costs of having children. That, particularly for millennials or generation Z, is a growing issue."    

View of baby's feet with a hospital security tag on
Photo credit: Getty Images

While cost plays a part, Spoonley said international experience shows it's nowhere near the only reason. 

"Some countries have tried to correct it, but what's interesting is it's very difficult to find any pro-natal, pro-birth policies that actually work.   

"For example, Hungary introduced a policy in 2019 that [women with] four or more children, didn't have to pay income tax. Germany and Japan are throwing a lot of money at the problem as well, and... It hasn't made any [substantial] difference. "

He said countries are throwing money at trying to make raising children cheaper but it hasn't stopped fertility decline.     

Spoonley said this shows cost isn't the only factor and societal and cultural changes also have a huge impact.   

He added countries need to figure out exactly what's driving the shift so they can introduce effective policies to combat it because we cannot rely on immigration to fill the gap forever.  

"Whenever we get near a population issue, the default position is immigration. We don't put all the other factors ageing, fertility, decline, regional patterns of growth or decline into the mix," he added.  

Spoonley said creating policies to take financial pressure off parents isn't a bad thing, but alone it clearly won't improve fertility rates significantly.  

Instead, he said we need to have robust conversations about our fertility rate and potential solutions.   

"I definitely think we should make it cost-neutral to have children but we need to be clear that it won't necessarily alter fertility decline.    

"We need to talk about population policy...We need to talk about the rapid ageing of New Zealand. We need to talk about fertility decline. We need to talk about the fact that we're forecasting very significant growth in the top half of the North Island so that eventually three-quarters of all New Zealanders will live in the top half of the North Island and, of course, immigration. We need to talk about all of those things and what we can do and what we want to do."   

What have other countries done? 

While New Zealand might not be having the types of conversations Spoonley wants, other countries are going further than just conversation.  

As Spoonley mentioned, if you're a mother of four or more kids in Hungary you don't have to pay income tax for life. The country also has subsidy programs to help large families buy a car, a loan program to help families with at least two children buy homes and every woman under 40 is eligible for a preferential loan when she first gets married.   

South Korea is following a similar trend offering new parents a cash payment when their baby is born and then ongoing support each month until their child finishes elementary school.   

Hong Kong meanwhile is offering cash bonuses of US$2557 for each newborn along with easier access to subsiding housing for families with children.    

Japan has had policies aimed at boosting their birth rates since the 1990s and Italy is looking to follow Hungary's lead.   

While New Zealand might not have specific policies to encourage Kiwis to have children, successive governments have attempted to make it less expensive.    

 The previous Labour Government boosted support for parents by increasing working for families payments and topping up the Best Start scheme.   

This month National revealed the FamilyBoost subsidy will begin on July 1 and will mean parents get a rebate on childcare costs of up to $75 a week.    

But based on international evidence and the Government's current approach, it's unlikely New Zealand's fertility rate will jump any time soon and it's unlikely to convince people like Zoe who don't want kids to change their mind.