Bill and Sana are expecting their 11th child. Families like theirs are becoming rare

Sana and Bill Soliola always wanted a big family, but they never expected to have 10 children and another on the way.
“Growing up in Lidcombe in western Sydney, everyone used to have a lot of kids and I’d think how cool it was siblings playing with each other,” said 43-year-old Bill, who was one of three children growing up.
“Our kids absolutely love having a big family.”

“You’re never alone,” added 37-year-old Sana. “There’s always someone there to talk to and have a laugh with, which is a joy.”

A portrait pic of a large family of mum, dad, a grandfather and 10 children. They are all wearing football strips.

The Soliolas, from Lidcombe in Western Sydney, get around in a minivan. Source: Supplied

A looming baby bust

In a world of plunging fertility rates, large families like the Soliolas are becoming a rarity.
While the , most people live in places where family sizes are shrinking from what they were.
These trends are particularly pronounced with an average of 0.72 children per woman.
In South Korea, youth are often referred to as the Sampo Generation, referring to those who seem to have given up on courtship, marriage and children altogether.
Replacement level fertility — the rate at which a generation can replace itself — is set at 2.1, though countries with high infant and child mortality rates may need a higher figure.
The US and most European countries have fertility rates below 2, while Australia’s fertility rate has been below replacement level since 1976. In 2022 it was 1.63, though it’s higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women at 2.35, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
African nations have the world’s highest fertility rates, according to World Bank data. Many have fertility rates over 4.5, some over 6, though these too are declining.
This family has 10 children; but it's becoming increasingly rare. image

James Pomeroy, global economist at HSBC Bank, terms this recent collapse of birth rates the “baby bust” and believes it’s left us on a “very, very difficult trajectory”.
“Pre-pandemic, birth rates had been dropping by 3 per cent per year in many economies and that trend was showing no signs of stopping. However, the data for 2023 suggest that things have gotten worse. Much worse,” he told SBS News.
“They’ve fallen to levels that I don’t think anyone thought was possible five or 10 years ago.”
If birth rates continue to fall at the current rate, Pomeroy believes the world’s population will start shrinking much sooner than many people expect.
“We think it’s a distinct possibility that in the 2040s.”

Why fewer babies?

A number of social and economic factors are leading to this decline, including increased female participation in the workforce; inadequate support systems for parents; not wanting to contribute to the world’s environmental woes; and — most significantly — rising costs, especially when it comes to childcare and housing.
“If you’re a person in your 20s today, you’ve been dealt a horrific hand in terms of your future finances,” Pomeroy said.
“Unless you’re lucky enough to win a lottery or to inherit loads of money, you’re . And for a lot of people, you don’t want to start a family until you’ve got that security.

“Unless we start to see a turnaround in housing affordability, I think these birth rates will either stay really low or actually drop much further.”

Reversing declining fertility rates is tough, simply because people in low-fertility societies don’t tend to want many babies, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Newcastle John Aitken said.

“There’s now a whole generation of Chinese people for whom the ideal family size is one, because that’s their lived history … If they had a happy childhood, that’s what they want to replicate.”

‘Massively unpopular’ ways to combat declining fertility

Token cash incentives or baby bonuses are unlikely to cut it today, according to Pomeroy, who said alternative options to encourage people to have babies such as increasing migration, raising taxes or the retirement age, or lowering healthcare benefits or pensions, were “massively unpopular politically”.

“The sad fact is at some point in the next 20 years, one of those levers has got to be pulled, probably more of them,” he said.

If you’re a person in your 20s today, you’ve been dealt a horrific hand in terms of your future finances.

James Pomeroy, global economist at HSBC

Inward migration not enough

In Australia, – for now.
“Migration makes up such a big part of overall population growth that Australia’s population pyramid does look quite a lot better than in quite a lot of other developed economies in North Asia or Europe that are also facing dropping birth rates,” Pomeroy said.

“There’s pretty plausible scenarios during the second half of this century where Europe’s population grows and Africa’s shrinks.”

A large amount of people walking along a street.

Overseas migration contributed a net gain of 518,000 people to Australia’s population in the year ending 30 June 2023. This was the largest net overseas migration estimate since records began, the ABS says. Source: AAP

Infertility struggles

The World Health Organization estimates 17.5 per cent of the adult population, or roughly one in six people worldwide, experience infertility, with limited variation between high, middle and low-income countries.
In 40 per cent of cases, the cause lies with the man, in another 40 per cent the cause is found within the female, according to IVF Australia. The remainder of cases is due to a combination of male and female factors.
“Both men and women lose fertility with age, but women lose their fertility very rapidly,” Aitken said.

“[But while] IVF is a wonderful technology that can treat very many different kinds of infertility, age-dependent female infertility is not one of them.”

The risk of genetic disease and miscarriage also increases with age.
At the same time, sperm counts have been declining for decades — by 50 per cent over the past 46 years, with the decline accelerating in recent years, according to a 2022 global study published in the journal Human Reproduction Update.

“Men are losing about 2 per cent in sperm counts per annum. And if this keeps on happening, you will get to a point where it starts to have an impact on fertility,” Aitken said.

A close-up image of sperm as seen under a powerful microscope.

Men worldwide are experiencing declining sperm counts. Source: Getty / Ed Reschke

Lower sperm counts have been linked to higher levels of obesity, poor diets and .

“The one thing that’s incontrovertible is that as societies develop, the incidence of testicular cancer increases. [This means] there are chemicals in the environment in socio-economically advanced countries that impact reproductive competence,” said Aitken, who believes the most likely candidates are additives to plastics like phthalates and bisphenol A.
But relying increasingly on IVF brings its own issues: fertility problems are more likely to be passed down onto the next generation, Aitken added.

“There’s no longer that relationship between your basic genetic capacity to reproduce and the number of children you actually have.”

The privilege of choice

While places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where birth rates remain high, don’t appear to have fertility crises, for individuals who live there, infertility still comes at a huge social cost.
Monash University senior research fellow Karin Hammarberg has overseen the establishment of an IVF clinic in Harare, Zimbabwe. She said in African countries, having children was seen as a way to pass on the bloodline or inheritance, as social security for old age, and to ensure status in society.
“For a woman in countries where having children is her main role in life, not having any is a deeply confronting and difficult situation,” she said.

“In worst-case scenarios women are disowned, are not accepted into the family and it’s a cause for divorce … stigma is enormous.”

Fertility treatment across Africa can be too expensive for the majority, with many women turning to ineffective local or traditional remedies, while untreated sexually transmitted infections can exacerbate fertility problems.
In Australia, , costing around $6,000 out of pocket per IVF cycle, though more low-cost clinics and government-funded centres have opened up.
For others, having children simply is no longer a priority.
“We no longer see procreation as being necessary in life,” Aitken said.

“I think nowadays people’s life journey is about self-fulfilment; it’s about realising your potential. And for many people, that just doesn’t involve having children, and that’s perfectly okay. That’s how it should be.”

A large family wearing football stripes smile at the camera.

Dad Bill Soliola and mum Sana Soliola say feeding so many children every day is tricky. A fortnightly shop takes two hours and some meals are simply egg on toast or tinned tuna with rice. Source: Supplied

The Soliolas say having children is both a privilege and a personal choice, and every family needs to find their “why”.

“We love having a big family. It is a struggle, but I think we’re strong enough to hold through the struggle in good times,” Sana Soliola said.
“No one should be hard on themselves, whether they have no kids or 10. The decision to have children is a choice people need to make on their own.”

This article was produced in collaboration with the Australian Science Media Centre and supported by a META Public Interest Journalism Fund administered by the Walkley Foundation.


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