Asia’s population may still be growing but this growth is taking place in only a few countries
Changing morés in Asia are resulting in plummeting birthrate in many of the more advanced Asian countries. Societal changes are driving these trends. As women are becoming financial more independent, whereas often men less so, marriage is often being postponed and couples are choosing to have less offspring – if any at all.
The result is that fewer workers to be there to support the increasing legions of longer living retirees and the costs of their ballooning healthcare and pension needs.
In others, burgeoning birthrates remain more often a calamity that an asset.
Almost a decade ago, in May 2002, The UN voiced concern over the dual demographic trends of declining births and an increasingly elderly population in Asia. A United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN/ESCAP) report concluded that “the clock is ticking” for Asia’s ageing population and that there will not be enough young workers to maintain social security systems.
At the time, the UN/ESCAP report was seen as a notable development because it highlighted that these demographic concerns were no longer restricted to Europe, where fertility decline and population “graying” have long been an issue. Asia and the Pacific has the potential, however, of even greater social upheaval compared to more developed nations as many countries have far fewer social programs in place to care for their rapidly graying populations.
This grim assessment now appears to be coming about. Some of the world’s lowest birth rates look set to slash labour forces in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Japan is at the vanguard of the ageing trend, with almost a quarter of people are over 65, while children make up just 13%.
Falling fertility rates are a common trend for societies as they grow richer, and many European societies are also below the level needed to keep a population stable – about 2.1 children per woman over her lifetime.
China now has 1.6 births per woman, Singapore has 1.2 and South Korea has slightly fewer than 1.1. Thailand has 1.3, Vietnam 1.7, Taiwan has just 1.03 births per woman.
In contrast, meanwhile, the Philippines is still growing at 2.5 births per woman, in Cambodia 2.6, and in Burma just under 2.0. However, this “population dividend” is not delivering the benefits hoped for as these countries have failed to harness the economic potential of their youthful populations.
Both China and India are enjoying a “demographic dividend” of low overall dependency rates, bur in the foreseeable future, the current work force will age, reversing the trend. In China, thanks to the 30-year-old one-child policy, its demographic timebomb is already ticking.
While in traditional rural societies children tend to take over the farm and care for their elderly parents, in modern, urban societies, many couples, with better access to birth control, see offspring as an unaffordable luxury.
Better educated women is more advanced Asian countries also often feel trapped between the independence that a career offers and conventional expectations of a woman’s role as wife and mother. In Japan, falling pregnant all too often spells career death. And with men in Confucian societies still expecting their wives to handle the childcare and household chores, many women are responding by putting marriage and families off as long as possible.
Other factors also play a role. Unlike their salaryman fathers, young Japanese “freeters” have rejected their parent’s work ethic. Instead they value lifestyles of few commitments and greater flexibility – often content to earn money from low skilled and low paid jobs. These low incomes makes it difficult for freeters to start a family, while a lack of qualifications makes it difficult to start a career at a later point in life.
At the other end of the equation, rapidly aging populations are compounded by long life expectancies – as in Japan that has a world-record 86.44 years for women and 79.59 years for men.This means the social welfare burden is growing for a government that already has a debt-to-GDP ration nearing 200%, the rich world’s highest.
The elderly tend to consume a high level of labor intensive services.
The obvious answer would be to encourage immigration from their struggling neighbours, but most of the advanced Asian nations still see immigration as a threat than a solution. As their economies start to contract, these attitudes appear to be hardening.
In 2002, Japan’s Health Minister predicted that “the Japanese race will become extinct” if fertility decline is not reversed.
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