The Age

Saturday 9 December 2000

The best form of contraception is a university degree

The Age (Melbourne)

Psst! Wanna get your country's birthrate down? I'll tell you how it's done. Educate your women. Statistically speaking, the education of women is the most effective form of contraception there is. (Not all by itself, of course, but there's nothing like a university degree to set the contraceptive wheels in motion.)

Evidence from all over the world says that as women become more highly educated, the birthrate drops.

It's certainly happened here. The secondary-school retention rate for girls has soared to almost 80 per cent completing year 12 (compared with 66 per cent for boys), and females now outnumber males on our university campuses. Meanwhile, the birthrate has slumped to the lowest level in our history (1.7 babies per woman) ... and is still falling.

Like all statistical correlations, the one that connects education levels to birthrates conceals many variations and exceptions. There are women bristling with higher degrees who have also borne large families. And there are women who, for myriad reasons or none, have neither offspring nor much in the way of formal education.

But the generalisation still holds and there is nothing mysterious about it. Well-educated women - just like well-educated men - are more likely than others to seek responsible and satisfying careers in business and the professions. They are also more likely to resist the pressure to marry and breed as their less well-educated mothers and grandmothers did, and more likely to employ effective contraceptive measures.

Highly educated women often feel as if their education and experience would be wasted by what they perceive as a descent, or retreat, into domesticity. (Of course, there are many other ways of describing the richness and complexity of parenthood and family life, but words like "descent" and "retreat" have a certain currency in our present cultural context.)

Many of them believe, with good reason, that having children will interrupt their careers and spoil their fun. Young women are inclined to talk about the things they would have to "give up" in order to have children and, frankly, when life feels good the way it is, the urge to breed can be suppressed or postponed.

Among all our talk of gender equity in education and employment, it is easy to slide past the true significance of the fact that women are the ones who bear children and, even today, do most of the nurturing of infants. We haven't yet worked out ways of allowing women the double fulfilment of career and motherhood without asking them to make sacrifices few men would be prepared to contemplate.

Educated women continue to face the stark choice they've been facing for years: will I go on with this career and forgo having children entirely, or will I abandon my career, at least for a while, and devote myself to motherhood? Will I try, perhaps, to strike some balance between a career somewhat dimmed by the demands of motherhood, and an experience of motherhood somewhat dimmed by the demands of my paid job?

Part of the problem is that we still tend to think of motherhood as a natural - even primitive - function, hardly requiring much sophistication, knowledge, training or expertise. Until we revalue parenthood (and, indeed, family life), and until we devise employment policies that allow women and men to make proper provision of time and energy for the tasks of parenthood, the present situation will continue.

And that will almost certainly involve a further decline in the birthrate. When you listen to well-educated young women talking about their aspirations, the postponement of parenthood is a recurring theme. When you ponder the statistics, you realise that all the hand-wringing in the world won't alter the fact that a highly educated female population will produce fewer children than a poorly educated one, unless there is a radical shift in our cultural attitudes.

So, get ready for an increasing proportion of older people in the population. At present, about 12 per cent of the population is over the age of 65. If present birthrate trends continue, and we don't boost our immigration program, that figure will have doubled by mid-century. (Imagine a society in which every fourth person is over the age of 65.)

Birthrates shape cultures. Do we, for instance, like the idea of poorly educated women bearing more children than well-educated women, perhaps confining population growth to the bottom of the socio-economic heap? Do we want to retard population growth to the point of actual decline, and how low is our target? If not, are we prepared to build our population through immigration rather than natural increase?

Such questions are interesting, but they fail to address the problem of a social polity that says women are equal to men, until they become mothers.

Hugh Mackay is an author and social commentator.

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Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2000.