Fertility and the other workforce crisis

Kellie Tranter in 'Womenomics' (22 September 06) makes the argument that the Australian government is falling behind internationally in its support for the children's services that women rely on to take up work.

Tranter is one of many Australians who point out that the new ‘choice oriented' industrial relations framework makes managing the tension between work and family life more difficult. There are also strong connections between low government support for childcare and poor legislative regulation of work and our current ‘stalled revolution' in gender equality (to use Arlie Hochschild's 1989 description).


However, this does not mean that the best solution is necessarily for women to take on more paid work and use more childcare. In fact, the attempt to manage the work/family balancing act by outsourcing parental care not only fails to relieve women of their disproportionate share of unpaid work; it may also be stopping families from having as many children as they would like. This has important implications for our economy and society.

Fertility in Australia was 1.81 births per woman in 2005. This falls well short of the replacement rate of 2.1. So in decades to come, we can expect a growing proportion of Australians to be elderly, with a greater burden falling on working taxpayers to provide social services and support.

Often the number of children women say they want to have is fewer than the number of children they actually end up having. The Australian Institute of Family Studies finds that the number of children Australian women expect to have is around 2 (Weston et al., 2004, 104). The number of children both men and women consider ideal is even higher – the ideal number of children nominated by women in 2004 was 2.5. (Weston et al., 2004, p 50). There is clearly something stopping Australians from having more children.

The best data we have, from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, says that Australian women do as much if not or slightly more work than Australian men — provided that you include unpaid work; housework, maintenance, and childcare.

Fifty years ago in Australia the bulk of work in the home was carried out by women, many of them not engaged in paid work. Today, it is possible to move at least some of this household work from the unpaid, hidden economy to the economic system by outsourcing activities to paid workers who are not part of the household.

But there are two issues here. Firstly, no family wants to outsource all unpaid work. Parents want to engage with their children, care for them, play with them, and spend family weekends together. As much as these are leisure activities, they are also work; children must be bathed, fed, taken to school and looked after in the home. These activities cannot be performed at the same time as paid work. Family time takes people away from their jobs. And so it should.

The second issue is that when parents do replace their own care with professional or other non parental care, they do not necessarily reduce their parenting time by the same number of hours that they have outsourced. That is, when parents use childcare for their children, they compensate by spending additional time outside their working hours with their children. Lyn Craig from the University of New South Wales analysed data from the Time Use Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and found that parents manage this mostly by 'reducing the time devoted to other activities' and rescheduling activities (Craig, 2004). What activities do they cut down on? Leisure, bathing, dressing, grooming, eating, according to Dr Craig. For example, non-employed mothers spend over three hours a day in personal care activities, which includes eating, dressing and grooming. Mothers who are employed spend less than 2 hours. Even more stark is that it seems non-employed mothers have 24 minutes of child-free leisure a day. For employed mothers: zero. So, using non-parental childcare means parents get less time for themselves. Even with outsourced paid work, parents end up with a greater overall workload, not a lesser one. Australian time-use studies consistently find that women carry out the bulk of household and childcare work, even when both partners work full-time – which means that women lose more of their leisure and personal care time when they work.

Image from istockphoto

It is important for governments to support good professional childcare. But it is also important to recognise that using childcare does not relieve parents of an equivalent burden of unpaid work. Some parents do not want to use non-parental childcare. If quality, well-paid, flexible part time work is not available, then the only alternative is for one of those parents (and my guess is it will almost always be the mother), to be excluded from paid work completely.

There is a growing body of research suggesting women's heavier unpaid workload might be associated with decreased fertility. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics time-use study (calculations available from author shows that in all families with children women have a longer work day than men, when using a measure of total work time (combined paid and unpaid work). As we might expect, there is more unpaid work performed in families with three or more children, than in families with two children. Women with two children could expect a combined, paid and unpaid workload of 98 hours a week, men with two children: 82.5. Compare this to a family with three or more children – combined work for women averages more than one hundred hours per week, and for men, eighty hours. Men in larger families perform about the same amount of combined work as in the smaller families – which means that women contemplating a third or subsequent child are probably faced with carrying all of the additional workload themselves.

So, parents who have an unmanageable load of paid and unpaid work have two choices; reduce their paid workload or reduce their unpaid workload. For women, reducing the time spent in paid employment might mean cutting their hours to work part-time or not at all. For men, working full-time is still the norm and if their family depends on their income, working part-time is not a practical option. They may be able to reduce their hours by negotiating with their current employer or changing jobs. Either way, changes are currently at the discretion of the employer.

The other option for adults is to reduce the unpaid workload. This might include substituting their own household work hours by paying someone else. From the data on family size and work hours, however, it seems that the most effective way for women to limit their exposure to additional hours of unpaid work is to not have a third or subsequent child.

If we recognise the home and the family as the unpaid workplace, might low fertility be the result of a ‘workforce crisis' in Australian households? Women are faced with lots of work and less time to do it in. Men are working as parents with the time they have left over from their paid working hours, and they may have little control over the number and timing of those hours. The lack of available ‘workers' may be what's stopping households from meeting their goals for increased ‘production' (of more children).

Current public policy discussions of work and family tend to focus on three things;

  • Maternity leave
  • More part-time work available for women
  • Better more/cheaper/higher quality childcare

These solutions focus on the mother/work relationship. We need to broaden the policy debate to include both parents by asking how we can ensure that decent part-time work is available to both mothers and fathers.

The Australian job market already has a relatively high proportion of part-time jobs, but they may still be ‘family un-friendly' due to poor security, inflexible hours or location. At present part-time jobs tend to be worse paid with poorer training and promotion opportunities, and not significantly more likely to allow us control over our start and finish times (Burgess, 2005).

We cannot rely on voluntary action by employers to change this situation – with the exception of industries facing skills shortages there is no real incentive for most employers to accommodate their employees' desires for increased flexibility. The creation of more family-friendly job opportunities is a communal responsibility, not just an individual one.

This means that we need to explore policies which could:

  • Remove the incentives for businesses to load additional work on to existing employees
  • Introduce incentives to create part-time jobs that have the same job security and opportunities for career advancement as full-time jobs
  • Nationalise the cost of parental leave to reduce disadvantage to individual businesses

So, what would couples choose today if both parents could have desirable, career-worthy part-time jobs, or even work an old-fashioned 38-hour week? I would very much like to find out.


Burgess, J. (2005) 'Exploring Job Quality and Part-Time Work in Australia', Labour and Industry, 15, (3)

Craig, L., 2004, How Do They Do It? A Time-Diary Analysis of How Working Mothers Find Time for the Kids, The Social Policy Research Centre
University of New South Wales Sydney NSW 2052, Sydney, January 2005.

Weston, R., Qu, L., et al., 2004, 'It's Not for Lack of Wanting Kids…' a Report on the Fertility Decision Making Project, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne

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