Story: Families: a history

Page 7. Baby bust families: mid-1970s to 1990s

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Shifts in fertility and family size

The Pākehā baby boom was followed by a ‘baby bust’. From the late 1970s the birth rate fell to two births per woman and stayed at this rate for the next 30 years. Rates of marriage dropped and people married later. These patterns were similar to trends in other OECD countries.

Ethnic variation

While Māori also experienced a rapid decline in fertility from the 1960s onwards, because their overall population was younger the birth rate was higher than for Pākehā. Pacific peoples had a higher fertility rate, and a younger population overall, resulting in a higher rate of births. There was rapid immigration in the 1990s by Asian people with dependent children, but Asians had the lowest fertility rates of all ethnic groups.

Why a baby bust?

Many young adults delayed marriage and parenting while they established themselves in careers, built savings and purchased homes. From the 1970s access to effective contraception, particularly the contraceptive pill and sterilization, made it easier for people to control their fertility. The beginning of the baby bust also coincided with feminist activism and public debate about contraception, abortion and women’s participation in all aspects of public life – paid work, politics, sport, entertainment, art and culture.

Parenting outside marriage

As rates of fertility and marriage dropped, the proportion of live births outside marriage rose dramatically – from 16.5% in 1975 to 40.7% in 1995. These children were typically born to older parents, often couples in de-facto relationships. Marriages increasingly occurred when a relationship had lasted for a significant time, when a couple wanted to have children, or when they wanted to make the status of their relationship more public.

Single mothers were predominantly women over 25, rather than the younger parents of earlier periods.

Marriage resistance

A study in Dunedin of heterosexual couples who cohabited identified a number of different reasons for ‘marriage resistance’.1 These couples valued choice over legal obligation and did not want to fall into the conventional roles of ‘the wife’ or ‘the husband’. However, changes within marriage that included women keeping their own family names, engaging in paid work, and sharing domestic work and childcare, sometimes made it difficult to distinguish living together from marriage.

Separation, divorce and sole-parenting

In 1976 the Matrimonial Property Act enshrined the principle of equal division of property between couples at the end of a marriage, regardless of their financial contributions. This legislation, and access by sole parents not in paid work to a Domestic Purposes Benefit from 1973, made separation, divorce and single parenthood financially viable for many women.

Equal division of property between separating de-facto couples was introduced with the Property (Relationships) Amendment Act in 2001. However, there was often a gap between the principle of equal division of assets like homes, furnishings, cars, businesses and superannuation and the outcome of such division.

Sole-parent families increased from the mid-1970s, but remained a small portion of all households, rising from 5% in 1976 to 10% in 2001. The increase was most rapid in the late 1970s and 1980s, but slowed in the 1990s.

Who is family?

Paul was a teenager who divided his time equally between his separated parents. He included his parents, his step-parents, their parents and his own grandparents in his ‘family’, but had stronger connections with some family members. ‘I always think of bloodlines, but maybe it’s ’cause I’m also much closer to [my half-brother and sister] than I am to my step-mum.’2

Families of a different kind

Two-parent families included children from previous relationships. Children, assets and money moved in complex ways between these households (sometimes consisting of his, her and our children). Children often initiated changes in where they lived and how they moved between their parents.

Some children lived in households with parents who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or queer. Usually conceived within heterosexual relationships that later ended, these children often had contact with both their parents as well as their parents’ partners. Some lesbian couples started to conceive children using sperm donated by male friends.

Family dynamics

Married women’s involvement in paid work increased, but men were still likely to spend more hours in employment and contribute more to family incomes. Research during the 1990s on money management in families indicated that for most Pākehā households women’s earnings were still seen as a supplement to the earnings of a male breadwinner. While women with children were in paid work for fewer hours each week, New Zealand parents had a high rate of average hours in paid work.

For Māori and Pacific families, earning household money was less likely to be seen as the responsibility of fathers and money earned was more likely to be shared outside the immediate household or nuclear family. Pacific families were most likely to see any money earned by a married couple as a resource to be shared with their extended family.

Footnotes:
  1. Vivienne Elizabeth, ‘Cohabitation, marriage and the unruly consequences of difference.’ Gender and Society 14, no. 1 (2000): 87–110. Back
  2. R. Fleming and T. Atkinson, Families of a different kind: life in the households of couples who have children from previous marriages or marriage-like relationships. Waikanae: Families of Remarriage Project, 1999, p. 147. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history - Baby bust families: mid-1970s to 1990s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/families-a-history/page-7 (accessed 21 July 2019)

Story by Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017