A QUARTER of women in their early 30s or younger may never have children, according to a new study.
Demographers say the trend could lead to workforce shortages and increased costs associated with the care of elderly who will have no offspring to look after them.
"Deciding not to have children happens as a consequence of other life events," says the latest report from Statistics New Zealand. "Education, career, mortgages, changes in family and partners for many couples, childlessness is what happens while they are making other plans."
The report says "voluntary childlessess" is more common among women living in cities, where the increased cost of living, larger social networks and career and education priorities were believed to have more effect. Other studies have already shown 25% of women with post-graduate educational qualifications had no children, as opposed to only 13% of women with no qualifications.
According to the 2006 Census, one in six 40-year-old women had never started a family.
"[But] for those born 10 years later, in 1975, indications are that around one in four may remain childless," says the report.
If that happened, the remaining population would have to produce an average 2.8 children to achieve replacement level fertility.
"The typical New Zealand family would need to increase substantially in size... given current social, economic and time constraints on parents, any increases seem unlikely."
Demographer Robert Didham, one of the report's authors, says the trend may not lead to a population decline.
"That will depend on migration levels."
There was also new evidence showing more women were having babies later last year, 2351 women aged 40 to 50 had babies, compared with 1253 a decade ago and just 399 in 1980.
"This does have a small effect but really too small to affect the long-term rates of childlessness much... and not all of these births are first births," says Didham.
The new report predicts that in the future, childlessness will become more common than having just one child, "and may even surpass having three children, to become the second most common family size (behind a two-child family)".
Didham says fewer children could result in a declining workforce, "and there is the key question of who looks after you in old age. If you haven't got a family, there have to be other mechanisms... there is a cost to the state".
The local trend matches overseas studies suggesting a quarter of women in Australia and the United States will remain childless. In Germany, rates are approaching 30%.
In New Zealand, the phenomenon has risen ten-fold, from fewer than 1% of women born in 1936, to almost 10% of women born in 1965.
Didham says the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1959 has been blamed for declining fertility, "but rates were dropping before the pill was widely available. Originally it was very strenuously restricted by GPs to married couples and there was a lot of pressure not to prescribe it to childless married couples, let alone anybody unmarried."
Didham says it's too early to say whether the government's Working For Families package could reverse trends. He says there has been a recent increase in births, "but this is a pattern that seems to have emerged in a number of countries simultaneously".
Overseas attempts to promote childbearing Australia's "baby bonus" for example "seem to have had little long term effect... there was a small increase in births, which was hailed as a success, but the increase was a lot less than nine months afterwards, so not related".
The report says people with children, or those planning to have a family, may view voluntary childlessness negatively.
"Some may hold the more extreme view that the rise in childlessness reflects the derogation of marriage, family and religious or cultural values.
"[But] it would be difficult to argue that society is worse off if people who have neither the time, nor the inclination to raise children, choose not to start a family."
The report is part of an ongoing investigation into childlessness, as revealed by the 2006 Census. Another paper, to be released later this year, will look at the socio-economic characteristics of childless women in more detail.
- Sunday Star Times