'The average number of children born to a woman aged 15 to 44 has dropped from four in 1965 down to 1.75 in 2018'

Birth rates are falling around the world, including here in Ireland, where just over 60,000 births were registered in 2019. There's been a steady decrease over the last decade from a peak of 75,000 in 2008. So why is this happening and what informs people's decisions to have children or not? Sociologist Dr Carmel Hannan from the University of Limerick and counsellor and psychotherapist Margaret O'Connor from Are Kids For Me? joined the Today With Claire Byrne show on RTÉ Radio One to discuss this trend. (This piece includes excerpts from the conversation which have been edited for length and clarity - full discussion below).

Hannan says this recent trend is actually part of a much bigger picture. "Since 1965 we've been seeing a quite dramatic drop in fertility rates and it's part of a longer term trend which we call the second demographic transition. The average number of children born to a woman aged 15 to 44 has dropped from four in 1965 down to 1.75 in 2018, and this means we are not reproducing our population. The replacement rate is 2.1, so we've fallen below that replacement rate, like all other countries in Europe who are well below that rate.

"We have the third highest fertility rate in Europe in Ireland, just behind France and Sweden, We were often compared to Spain and Italy because of Catholicism. But their population fertility rate is 1.3 so they're at the other extreme to Ireland. We tend to be known for getting married later, having kids later, but still having quite high fertility rates despite this postponement to later ages."

"It's obviously a big commitment and people want to make sure that it's something that they really, really want and are willing to commit to."

There are several factors behind the high birth age of mothers in Ireland, explains Hannan. "The more educated you are, the more likely that you're going to enter the workforce and remain in the workforce, so you limit the size of your family, or you might have higher rates of childlessness or child-free living. But there's a big social gradient to that. We see a difference in Ireland between women who are having birth inside and outside of marriage or inside and outside of relationships. When it's outside a permanent cohabitation or marriage, you're doing it younger, but inside of marriage, when you have kids, it's much older."

According to Margaret O'Connor, people are also now putting a lot of thought into when and if they're going to have children. "There are lots of reasons taken into account. They might be quite practical in terms of accommodation, like how secure is your accommodation, how secure is your job if you're in a precarious job or out of work. There's also just whether you actually want to have children. It's a big decision, it's obviously a big commitment and people want to make sure that it's something that they really, really want and are willing to commit to.

We see a difference in Ireland between women who are having birth inside and outside of marriage or inside and outside of relationships

"I did some research back in 2017 and the thing that struck me was that people found it quite a difficult decision. They found it very isolating and they felt very unsupported, but it comes back to a very, very individual situation that you have to try and find the right answer or find the right time, which I suppose just shows it tends to be put in this kind of binary of, "I really want kids" or, "I really don't want kids." But I think the issues affect everybody. Parenting needs to be valued as something that is a big commitment. It's not straightforward that everybody will necessarily go ahead and do it so I think that narrative doesn't help either side of the division."

In the past, much of our decision-making around families and children was linked to religion, but this has changed, says Hannan. "Secularisation and decline in religious affiliation and attendance have been strongly linked with declining fertility rates, but they're also linked to other changes such as women's increasing education, the control of contraception, and the ability to make choices and decisions because some constraints have been removed."

You can hear the discussion in full below

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