EDITORIAL: Why are we opting for smaller families?
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, October 29, 2011
Like most other Western countries, Australia has experienced a rapid decline in fertility since the 1960s, to the point where there is grave doubt whether the social security system will be able to support the rising number of aged Australians, not to mention their increasing demand on health, hospitals, aged care and other services.
For those who regard this as an exaggeration, recent events in Greece should come as a stark reminder that countries, like individuals, cannot live beyond their means indefinitely, and the day of reckoning will be extremely painful.
The commencement of the demographic decline coincided with the cultural revolution that swept the West during the 1960s. The rise in individualism and secular humanism have shaped much of contemporary society, with the widespread acceptance of divorce, abortion, cohabitation and other social malaises.
It also accompanied a decline in religious belief and practice. Until that time the West’s culture had generally welcomed children as a blessing, and rewarded parents’ unique contribution to the future of society.
Among West European countries, the two which have suffered the most serious decline in fertility have been Spain and Italy. This decline has surprised demographers, because these countries are rightly seen as being culturally Catholic, while the Catholic Church remains one of the few institutions in Western societies which actively encourages natural fertility.
The conclusion some have drawn is that the collapse in fertility corresponds with a decline of religious belief and practice.
The problem with this explanation is that surveys in Europe have shown that Spain and Italy remain among those with high levels of religious belief, far higher than countries such as France and the United Kingdom, where fertility levels, while low, are still among the highest in Europe.
According to a Gallup Poll conducted in 2007-8, the lowest levels of religious belief are to be found in Scandinavia, which has a very low birth rate. Just above Scandinavia are Britain and France, while Italy and Spain have considerably higher levels of religious belief.
Having travelled in both Spain and Italy, I have found this corresponds with my own observations. What then is the explanation for the collapse in fertility in these two countries?
To a visitor from Australia, one of the most striking aspects of life in both Spain and Italy is that almost their entire populations live in high-rise apartments. This is not only true in cities, but also in the country. In rural areas, most people live in apartments in the towns, and go out to work in the fields during the day. Farmhouses, which are the norm in rural Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the UK, are rarely seen in Spain or Italy.
It seems clear that as industrialisation and urbanisation took place in Spain and Italy, which were then poor countries, governments abandoned the peasantry and opted instead to supply essential services such as housing, electricity and education only to the towns and cities. And, in the towns, everyone lived in high-rise apartments.
This is quite different from the “quarter-acre block” which characterised urban growth in Australia and other countries, and the farmhouses which are to be found dotted across rural Australia, supported by a network of services including electricity and education.
As any real estate agent will tell you, apartment living is not conducive to raising children, because crying babies upset the neighbours, and children need lots of room to play.
And this helps to explain why Spain and Italy, which continue to have relatively high levels of religious belief and practice, have among the lowest birth rates in Europe.
Other countries which have encouraged high-rise apartment living, including Russia (under the former Soviet Union), Japan and China, have all seen a sharp decline in fertility levels. None of these has been deeply influenced by the process of secularisation.
There are many factors which have contributed to the demographic decline, but the shift to apartment living is undoubtedly one of the most important.
It is interesting that in Australia, where for generations home ownership has been encouraged through low-interest home loans and other forms of support, governments of all political persuasions have encouraged the construction of large-scale high-rise apartments in most Australian cities in recent years.
Often these are occupied by singles and young couples.
However effective high-rise apartments may be in curbing the urban sprawl — and the evidence is inconclusive — one consequence is that they contribute to declining family size, and nationally, to the decline in fertility.
If governments were really serious about the looming demographic winter, they would take practical steps to encourage family formation, treat mothers who work at home the same as those in the paid workforce, and discourage young couples from apartment living.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.