EDITORIAL: The flight from fatherhoodby Peter Westmore
Printed in Issue:25 January 2003
Since the 1970s, when family fertility levels began to decline in Australia, a great deal of attention has been given to identifying the causes of the phenomenon.
Among those factors often cited are the widespread use of the "pill", the incidence of abortion, the rising age of marriage, and increased participation by married women in the paid workforce.
Six years ago, a pioneering American study, conducted under the auspices of the US Department of Health and Human Services, looked at male fertility, but found that"little attention has been paid to the role of males in conceiving and raising children, including their intentions and attitudes about becoming fathers, their relationships with the mothers of their children, and their relationships with their children, or the absence of such relationships".
Since then, a number of studies have looked at this question, particularly in the US.
Early in January, a study of this question in Australia found that there has been a flight from fatherhood over the past 30 years, even more pronounced than the flight from motherhood. (People and Places, Vol. 10, No. 4)
Using information from a national survey conducted in 1997, it found that for men aged between 30 and 34 in 1997, 68 per cent were estimated to have had no children by the age of 30.
In contrast, for those aged 40-44, the comparable figure was 52 per cent, while for those aged 50-54, the figure was just 14 per cent.
While the study did not analyse the causes of this remarkable change, others have pointed to both sociological and economic factors.
Since the cultural revolution of the sixties, the institution of marriage has been undermined by easy divorce laws, accompanied by the growth of individualism, the emergence of radical feminism, rampant materialism and the erosion of a sense of family responsibility.
The inevitable consequence has been a soaring divorce rate, and a growing reluctance by both men and women to accept responsibility for children.
Additionally, government policies push full-time homemakers into the workforce, through a judicious mix of carrot and stick.
The carrot includes the taxation system, which treats individuals, not families, as the unit of taxation, and government-funded child care, which act as an indirect subsidy to those in paid employment.
Return to work
The stick includes social pressure to work, and obligations on low-income earners and single parents to join the paid workforce.
For example, under a recent change of policy, recipients of the Parenting Payment - a form of income support for single parents and low-income families - will be required to attend an interview with Centrelink staff to discuss plans for a return to the paid workforce if they have children aged over six.
If their youngest child is aged 13, continued payments will depend upon doing up to six hours work per week.
The paradox is that with unemployment rates over six per cent, and seven or eight applicants for every job, this initiative can only lengthen the unemployment queues.
Yet unemployment and low incomes, particularly for men, are clearly linked with difficulty in family formation, family instability, and the rise in female single income families.
In 1998, Bob Birrell, Reader in Sociology at Monash University, released a study, A Not So Perfect Match, which showed that men who were unemployed or on low incomes were far more likely to be single or divorced than those on higher incomes.
He found that an astonishing 32 per cent of men aged 24 to 45 - the primary years of marriage and family formation - were not in full-time work and earned less than $21,000 a year.
Of the 20 per cent of men earning less than $15,600, 43 per cent never married, reflecting the fact that women are reluctant to partner men who cannot provide for them.
Of the low-income earners who had been married, 18 per cent were divorced, compared with just 8 per cent of those earning over $52,000 a year.
This shows that economic rationalism has created a dispossessed underclass of men and women who have been denied the economic foundation for a family, while the culture of individualism has eroded society's respect for the family unit.
This emphasises the profound challenge which Australia faces to restore family fertility.
The Federal Government has foreshadowed a shake-up of its welfare system, which is undoubtedly needed. But so-called "welfare" policies designed to get mothers back into the workforce are a social and demographic disaster.
Family policy is not welfare policy. Family policy supports those with the desire to form a family, and helps families with children, particularly single income and those without incomes, for the long-term benefit of the nation.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council