More New Zealanders are ending up unintentionally childless because they are focusing on their careers and leaving children until it's too late, new research says.
Statistics NZ demographer Dr Robert Didham says the proportion of women who ended up childless at ages 50-54 has jumped from under 10 per cent in 1996 to 15 per cent in the last Census in 2013. The childless rate was highest for professional women, at just over 16 per cent, compared with 12 per cent for female labourers.
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"As a result of career pathways, that may be 5 per cent or more of voluntary childlessness," Dr Didham told the Population Association's biennial conference in Hamilton yesterday.
But he said the figures pointed to a high and rising rate of "involuntary" childlessness where people planned to have children but, owing to educational and career priorities, did not get around to trying until too late.
"In an era when virtually everybody had children, in the mid-1950s, there was a childless rate of about 8 per cent. Even then there was some involuntary childlessness, sometimes leaving it too late, sometimes medical infertility," he said. "If you assume that underlying propensity of childlessness is 7 or 8 per cent, then anything more than that can be construed as involuntary."
Other studies have found that only 3 to 4 per cent of women will fail to conceive for biological reasons at age 20, but the rate rises to between 6.5 per cent and 12 per cent in different studies by age 30. The median age of New Zealand mothers giving birth has risen from 26 in 1962 to 30 today.
Canterbury University researcher Dr Lois Tonkin, who completed a thesis last year on 26 women who expected to have children but were childless, said such "circumstantial" childlessness was due not only to educational and work commitments, but also to unexpected events.
"They didn't find the right person, or they found someone and that person already had children, or they prioritised education and travel and found they ran out of time."
Ethnic differences suggested that career choice was not the only factor at work. For example, 67 per cent of Maori professional women, but only 46.5 per cent of European professional women, had had children by the age group 30-34. Consequently, only 12 per cent of Maori professional women were still childless at age 50-54, not much more than a rate of just under 10 per cent for Maori female labourers at those ages.
European and Maori women who were born overseas were much less likely to have children at all ages than women of the same ethnicity who were born in New Zealand, reflecting generally lower fertility rates in most European countries. On the other hand, Pacific women were more likely to have children at all ages if they were born in the islands, where birth rates are higher, than if they were born here.
Overall, Dr Didham found rising rates of childlessness between 1981 and 2013 for all age groups under 50. However, in the 60-plus age groups there were higher rates of childlessness in 1981, reflecting low birth rates during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
He said the trends raised concerns about who would look after both childless women and men who needed care in old age.
"Who is going to look after people if they don't have children, even if their children live overseas?" he asked. "It's a question of can the state continue to look after them, but also we don't have paternity data so we don't know what the family care resources are for ageing men who are on their own."
Happy to be kid-free
Children are "not a priority" for photographer Ted Baghurst, 41, and his partner of six years, Pascale McDonald, 30.
"We don't dislike children, but we just really don't want them at the moment," Mr Baghurst said. "People ask us all the time, but having children is something we don't want enough to do."
"I had a dog once and that was hard enough, and I guess it would be the same with children," Mr Baghurst said.
Ms McDonald, who works in sales at Spark New Zealand in Auckland, said one reason she was putting plans to have children on hold was financial.
"We are not really in a situation financially where we can support ourselves and provide for the kids as well," she said.
"There's still a lot of things I want to do in life, primarily travel, which would be difficult if we have kids."
Ms McDonald did not rule out having children in the future.
- additional reporting Lincoln Tan