Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Family Size and the Gendered Division of Unpaid Work: Implications for Fertility Decisions in Australia

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Family Size and the Gendered Division of Unpaid Work: Implications for Fertility Decisions in Australia

Article excerpt


A demographic transition called population ageing is occurring in Australia. The average age of the population is increasing, and a steadily increasing proportion of the population is aged (Jackson, 1999). A key driver of population ageing is declining fertility rates- a decline that has been evident in Australia since fertility peaked in 1961. The Australian Government's Intergenerational Report has highlighted some of the potential social and economic problems associated with population ageing (Costello, 2002). Among the issues raised in this report is the concern that population ageing will lead to a reduction in the available workforce with possible consequent labour shortages, fewer adults in their working years, a declining taxation base, and more older people who are dependent (to varying degrees) on services funded by Governments. As a greater proportion of the population become elderly, there are more who need care and assistance from governments and families. Social resources are likely to be stretched.

Population ageing is caused by two things; increasing life expectancy, and decreasing fertility rates (Jackson, 1999). Concern has been expressed about declining fertility rates, with the current TFR for Australian women in 2004 at 1.77 (ABS, 2004). Total fertility rates (TFR) represent the number of children a woman would bear, if she experienced current fertility rates in her lifetime. This rate of 1.77 falls short of the replacement level fertility of 2.1, which is the 'level at which population replacement occurs' (McDonald, 2001).

Demographic literature has established a number of specific social and economic factors connected with lower fertility. Increased post-secondary education levels and decreased marriage rates for women in their 20s and 30s are thought to create a disincentive for women to exchange paid employment for parenthood (Birrell, 2000). There are recognised costs of parenthood to human capital, economic wellbeing (Gray and Chapman, 2001), and social costs, such as loss of occupational prestige and limited time for some social activities (Craig, 2002), experienced by women who have children. Women may respond by allocating their time to market work rather than unpaid childcare work.

Accordingly, demographic studies have focussed on the influence of paid work and the market on women's fertility decisions, but more recently discussion of possible influencing factors has incorporated discussion of unpaid work time. Nancy Fraser argues that free time is a prerequisite for political and social life, and therefore fundamental to social justice. Economist Nancy Folbre uses the work and family time research of Arlie Hochschild (1989) in diagnosing a 'coordination problem that results in a suboptimal outcome' (Folbre, 1997), where parents struggle to balance commitments to market work with household and childcare work. Legal scholar Linda Hirshman makes the provocative suggestion that unpaid household and childcare commitments are now more restrictive to women's career progression than other, market factors such as discrimination. She proposes that 'the real glass ceiling is at home' (Hirshman, 2005).

Household time use features in demographic discussion in recent work by Peter McDonald. McDonald (2000) proposes that unpaid household work performed within the family makes up part of an individual's work experience, and potentially influences fertility decisions. This provokes the use of time use data, particularly studies of unpaid work performance, in demographic theory.

Torr and Short tested McDonald's theory in a study which examined the relationship between the patterns of household work sharing and the likelihood of increased fertility. In particular they considered whether the household division of labour was linked to couples having a second child. Couples in Torr and Short's study were more likely to have a second child when they fell into the extremes of the three groups created by Torr and Short based on household work share; either most equitable, and most inequitable. …

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