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Changing trends between education, childlessness and completed fertility: a cohort analysis of Australian women born in 1952–1971

Abstract

Little is known about whether and how trends in completed cohort fertility and lifetime childlessness by education have changed over time. This study uses census data to describe the changes in completed family size and proportions ultimately childless by educational attainment of Australian women born between 1952–1971 (N = 2,518,571). In all cohorts, better-educated women have lower fertility levels than their lesser-educated counterparts. The decline in completed fertility has, however, slowed among recent cohorts of women with university degrees, while it has been declining at a faster pace among women with Year 12 and Diploma qualifications. The positive effect of education on childlessness has also reduced. The gap in ultimate childlessness between women with university degrees and women with Year 12 qualifications or below has been markedly narrowing across the cohorts under observation, while the increasing trend in childlessness has recently reversed among women with university degrees. There was an overall difference of 12 percentage points between the proportion of higher educated women childless across fields of study, with the highest values occurring for women educated in the arts, agriculture, information technology and social sciences and the lowest values occurring for women educated in health and education. Despite such differences, women educated in all fields of study, apart from engineering, contributed to the recent decline in the proportion childless. The relationship between motherhood and marriage has remained stronger among better-educated women, while it weakened for lesser-educated groups.

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Data availability

Data are sourced from TableBuilderPro, an online tool for using the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) microdata.

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Correspondence to Ester Lazzari.

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Appendix

Appendix

A sensitivity analysis was conducted to explore how the completed fertility rates and proportions of women ultimately childless by education would change if the rate of non-responses to the children ever born question were not proportionally distributed across parities as assumed in this study. Hence, the results of the study (S1) are compared to a second scenario (S2) which assumes that half of the not stated cases were from women with no children, while it proportionally distributes the rest across parities, and to a third scenario (S3) which refers to the unlikely possibility that all of the not stated cases were from women of zero parity. While S3 provides a useful benchmark to evaluate the potential importance of the childless error, it is a fairly unlikely scenario, as there are other possible reasons why the question on the number of children ever born remains unanswered (El Baldry 1961), which are not more likely to occur among childless women. Hence, the assessment of how the childlessness error might have affected the results of this study are mainly based on a comparison between S1 and the more realistic S2. As shown in Table 5, the absolute differences between S1 and S2 are not substantial and, most importantly, time trends and relative differences across educational groups are maintained.

Table 5 Sensitivity analysis to assess how the completed cohort fertility and proportions of women ultimately childless would change if half (S2) or all (S3) not stated cases to the children ever born question were from women with no children instead of proportionally distributed across parities (S1)

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Lazzari, E. Changing trends between education, childlessness and completed fertility: a cohort analysis of Australian women born in 1952–1971. J Pop Research 38, 417–441 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12546-021-09269-x

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Keywords

  • Ultimate childlessness
  • Completed cohort fertility
  • Education
  • Field of study
  • Marital status