Australia is Growing Old

Babette Francis - ONLINE Opinion, 3 September 2013

The most significant figures in Graham Young's analysis of the relative importance to voters of a range of issues in the 2013 federal elections ("Age the issue as debts mount", The Australian, 31/8/13) were in his comment that although Kevin Rudd was nearly six years older now than when he contested the 2007 elections, as is to be expected, the age of the average voter in 2007 was 45 years and ll months but the age of the average voter in the 2013 elections is 47 years and four months and "we're not used to seeing the average voting age decay at all".

This "decay" in the age of the average voter has far more serious implications than its impact on the priority of issues for voters in the 2013 elections, and is symptomatic of the "decay" in Australian society, i.e. the ageing of our population. There is no bearded man with a board around his neck walking around proclaiming "Repent! The End is Nigh", but perhaps there should be.

Australia's total fertility rate (TFR) in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics are available) is l.88 babies per woman, down slightly from the 2010 TFR of 1.89 babies per woman. Since 1976, the total fertility rate for Australia has been below replacement level. That is, the average number of babies born to a woman throughout her reproductive life (measured by the TFR) has been insufficient to replace herself and her partner. The TFR required for replacement in developed countries is currently considered to be around 2.1 babies per woman. The TFR reached a low of 1.73 babies per woman in 2001 before increasing to a thirty-year high of 1.96 babies per woman in 2008, the last year when Treasurer Peter Costello's baby bonus of $5,000 to all mothers had an impact.

In a recent statement Opposition Leader Tony Abbott expressed relief that abortion was not an issue in our federal elections, and he reiterated US President Clinton's mantra that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare". One hopes that when Tony Abbott is Prime Minister he will put emphasis on ensuring abortion is "rare", because as DLP Senator John Madigan commented, "Abortion is never safe, someone always dies".

In my opinion, abortion should be a major federal issue, not only from the perspective of the human rights of babies in the womb, but from the impact a below-replacement level birth rate has on the economy of a nation - and I know Abbott is focussed on economic revival in Australia. From an economic perspective we cannot afford to abort one in three of the babies conceived in Australia - just look at the stagnant economies of Europe and Japan, and the anxiety of Russia as it surveys its declining population. How can there be any economic revival if there are fewer people to buy goods and provide services, or even to admire the trees (pace the Greens)?

Fewer young people means we lose all the energy, enthusiasm and creativity of youth. Japan is invaluable as a demographic laboratory because it is a closed system, with almost no emigration or immigration. Its 99% ethnically homogenous population gives us a rare glimpse of what the future holds for the entire world. A chilling statistic is that in Japan the sales of nappies for old citizens now outnumber the sales of nappies for babies.

Nicholas Eberstadt analysed social trends in Japan where birth rates have been below replacement level since 1960 and annual deaths now outnumber births ("Japan shrinks", Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2012). Japan was the first developed country in the world to legalise abortion, with its Eugenic Protection Act and Amendments in 1948 - 1952.

Dr Brian Clowes, research director for Human Life International (said) "Do you know any Japanese people? If you do, you had better look fast, because they’re an endangered species". According to the United Nations, every hour of the day and night there are thirty less Japanese in the world. By the end of this year, there will be 200,000 less, and by the year 2050, Japan will have lost nearly a quarter of its population.

"Japan's TFR now stands at an astonishing 1.1 children per woman (half that required for replacement), and will continue to decline to 0.6 children per woman by 2050….Japan's population reached a maximum of 126.5 million two years ago, and is now one million less. This trend will accelerate until the nation is losing a million people a year."

The number of Japanese children under 15 has declined for 30 consecutive years, from 24 per cent of the population to its current 13 per cent. Japan now has fewer children than it did a century ago. The number of people over 65 has increased from a mere 5 per cent of the population in 1952 to its current 23 per cent, and is projected to increase to 43 per cent by 2050. Japan is currently the oldest nation in the world, with an average age of 45, and this will increase to an incredible 60 years by 2050. Graham Young cites the age of the average voter in Australia is 47 years and 4 months; while this is not the same as the average age of Australians, it is a marker, and our average age will increase if our TFR does not increase.

The combination of a shrinking youth population and an exploding elderly population has profound economic implications. There are fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees. In 1950 there were 10 Japanese workers supporting each retired person. Now, there are just 2.5 workers supporting each retiree. By 2050, each Japanese worker will have to support one retired person, the lowest worker/retiree support ratio in the world. And it is not only Japan that feels the impact of an ageing population. Gerhard Schroder, German Chancellor prior to the incumbent Angela Merkel, cut his own mother's old age pension, along with that of others in her age group, in an effort to "balance the books".

People concerned about the economy delay marriage and childbearing, and so a demographic negative feedback loop, or "vicious cycle", continues. Just as Japan is a closed system, so is the world. Just as Japan's population leveled out and began to plunge, so will the world's, and very soon. This may be exactly what the Greens want - a Gaia unblemished by humankind, but I am sure that this not what Tony Abbott wants, and so he had better concentrate on policies giving economic justice to mothers who are not in the paid workforce - these are the women most likely to have more than the 2.l children necessary for replacement-level population growth.

World TFR will drop to replacement in just two years, population will peak in three decades and then begin to decline. The time to end population control programs and taxpayer funding for contraception, sterilisation and abortion is now, because it is very difficult if not impossible to reverse population and birth rate decline. Russia is trying with some degree of desperation, France has been trying for years. Neither country has reached a TFR of 2.1

Since 1995, the Japanese government has tried everything to get women to have more babies, including greatly increased child-care benefits and funding for "speed dating", but without success. This is hardly surprising as people have been told for decades that babies are a burden, and that they interfere with your wants and are bad for the environment.

I know this is not Tony Abbott's view but this is why he needs to include in his policies the mothers who remain out of the paid workforce while their children are pre-school. These are the mothers who have three children or more, the children who are the workers and taxpayers of your future. These single-income families do not benefit from, but pay through their taxes for the paid parental leave policies and child care funding subsidies available to mothers in the paid workforce, but not available to those who care for their own children.

Our population has been increasing because of our generous immigration program, but many of the countries from which our immigrants come also are tending to have low TFRs - Sri Lanka is at 2.17, just slightly above replacement level, while the World Bank estimated Iran's TFR in 2010 ar l.67, well below replacement.

Babies and the taxpayers they grow up to become are a resource that we neglect at our peril.