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e-zine: Demographics Trumps Economics

Ministry of Parents
e-zine of Parents Centre New Zealand

Demographics trumps economics

Is our country sustainable?

You might think that the desire to reproduce is so fundamental that it can endure the harshest of onslaughts of government policy flung against it. Our government's own statistics would suggest otherwise.

Our birth rate is declining - fast. In the decade from 1991 to 2001 our raw birth rate fell by almost 10%, but it's not that simple. Since our population increased through migration by 11% during the same time our birth rate actually dropped by a staggering 19.5%!

Imagine if our GDP had dropped by 19.5% (it increased by 32%), or if unemployment rose by that (it fell by over 50%) during that time. That would be considered a major crisis. We would be banging on the World Bank's door asking for handouts. Governments fall over such statistics.

Our declining birth rate has hardly attracted a mention. The fact that it is the lowest ever recorded in the country isn't interesting either.

Our population is currently being supported by immigration which over a similar timeframe ('93-'03), rose by 91%. Is immigration a sustainable way to maintain your population? Many people come to this country because they believe that it is a great place to raise children. That may be an international perception but can we say that it is a great place to be a parent? Our own population clearly doesn't think so as substantially fewer people are choosing to become parents.

The Ministry of Social Development's Population and Sustainable Development Report asserts in the next 25 years around 70 million people will retire in the OECD to be replaced by just 5 million workers. Compare this with the last 25 years where 45 million retired and were replaced by 120 million workers. What's strange about this report is the bland acceptance that that is the way it is going to be. In identifying the issues for New Zealand the report cites everything from an older workforce to integrating migrant workers to addressing Auckland's infrastructure but does not even hint at encouraging people to start families.

This disinterest in parenting has dire economic consequences in the next decade or two. As a nation, we could face economic collapse. If our tax rate has to rise to pay for the large burden of retiring elderly, we will drive young people offshore. If we don't grow our pool of income earners and consumers, we will lose businesses as they will see limited prospects in a dwindling pool of new consumers.

The superannuation nest egg that Dr. Cullen is putting away for us could turn to egg on our faces if we have insufficient new blood moving through schools and into the workforce to keep a strong economy going. We need children and the only way to get them is to encourage people to become parents. With the recent report, the government can't claim they haven't noticed the problem.

Much of government legislation is designed to encourage certain behaviour, such as the recent home ownership mortgage programme, to encourage people to buy houses. There are a lot of initiatives from government encouraging people to enter the workforce and start enterprises. The solid movement of funds targeted at regional growth and job skills training, coupled with an increase in subsidised childcare for low income earners is clearly designed to encourage people to enter or return to the workforce. This is good. Paid work has been well accepted to provide all sorts of esteem and even health benefits, besides the financial security. Parents benefit from participating in the workforce. However, the mechanisms and messages that our government is solidly pumping into the community imply that work is far more important than parenting, more valuable and should be where you focus your energy. We have all seen advertisements encouraging people to become teachers, join the military, stay at school and get the training to enter a satisfying career. Have you ever seen any to encourage people to become parents? The silence surrounding parenting gives it a hobby status and the more messages that people see reinforcing the notion that work is where they should go to get self esteem - the easier it is for them to decide that their life will be more rewarding without kids.

Here's a simple test you can do at your next work function. When a stranger asks you what you do say that you are a full time parent attending with your partner and watch how long it takes for their interest in you to fade. Try telling someone else you are training to become a professional rugby referee. You will quickly see which one the audience considers to be more interesting and valuable. After parenting being devalued for two decades it is only natural that those participating in the workforce see it as unimportant.

The culture of devaluing parenting precedes this government and we are not suggesting they are the orchestraters. They are part of a continuum that has been operating for at least two decades promoting everything over parenting until parenting must appear to be the least attractive vocation anyone could aspire to.

However, they are the group with the current means to start changing the status of parenting and encourage more people to start families. Several ministers recently expressed a desire that people spend more time with their families and not over-commit to work. We'd like to see more of those messages. We'd like to see measures put in place to relieve the financial burden of having a family and encourage for parents to acquire skills and knowledge on parenting. Currently an employee undergoing training is seen as an investment and the costs are tax deductible. A parent seeking new knowledge and skills pays for it out of the family budget - it's seen as a luxury and reinforces the message that parenting is a hobby. A simple measure such as making parent education tax deductible would elevate the status of parenting and make it more important.

In essence if government wants to avert a demographic disaster they need to do two things. They need to create a parenting environment that looks rewarding and inviting to young adults and they need to get some messages out into the community suggesting that parenting is something that is valued.

We hope that like the superannuation fund, government will begin to see that we need a long term commitment to well supported parents to ensure the long term strength of our country.


Statistics sourced from www.stats.govt.nz and www.msd.govt.nz. The use of statistics in this document is illustrative and not intended to represent an authoritative summary. 1991 saw 59,911 births for a population of 3,516,000 2001 saw 55,799 births for a population of 3,912,100


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