On Asia’s rapidly declining fertility rate, and why it matters
There’s a lot going on the in the world, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the lingering impact of COVID-19 to recession fears.
One consistent narrative that has caught my eye over the past few months, however, may sound counterintuitive to Western ears, but it’s one worth paying attention to, both because of its impact on other countries and as a warning for our own future: the rapidly declining birth rates in Asia.
Asia has more than twice the number of people of any other continent: some 4.6 billion people, almost 60% of the world’s population.
But a wide variety of factors, from economic pressures to social inequality, have led to a significant decline in major Asian countries. Here’s just a few examples:
- In China, a “one-child” policy embedded a social expectation that folks have small families. The government amended this policy to allow couples to have two children in 2016 and three in 2021. “But the measures have been met with a wave of public skepticism, ridicule and debate, highlighting the challenges China faces as it seeks to stave off a shrinking work force that could imperil economic growth.”
- South Korea has had the lowest fertility rate in the world for three years in a row. They’re turning childcare facilities into nursing homes. “The United Nations projects that South Korea’s 51 million population will halve before the end of the century.”
- Japan has the second-highest median age in the world (behind the tiny Monaco, so, really, it’s the highest) at 49. For decades, officials have attempted to reverse this trend, but the country is having fewer babies at a more rapid pace than projected. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at the beginning of this year’s parliamentary session that “Our nation is on the cusp of whether it can maintain its societal functions.”
- Even in India, poised to become the world’s most populous country (if it’s not already), fertility rates have recently fallen below the 2.1 rate populations need to average to reproduce themselves.
Why is this happening?
You could spend all day reading studies and papers and essays behind this continental (and, to a certain extent, global) trend. And factors vary from country-to-country, city-to-city, person-to-person. Here are some that stood out to me:
- Having children is expensive. Asian economies have struggled in a post-pandemic world and for years before that. It’s widely considered more expensive to raise a child in China, for instance, than anywhere in the world.
- The future is bleak. Rampant climate change, rising unemployment rates and difficult education tracks have led some people to wonder what kind of life their child would have.
- Cultural and institutional misogyny: On top of the normal pressures on pregnant women and mothers, particularly in the workforce (where maternity leave policies are threadbare, if they exist at all) and incredibly expensive childcare costs, sexism, misogyny and male chauvinism are all contributing factors to many women’s decisions to not have children:
“The birth strike is women’s revenge on a society that puts impossible burdens on us and doesn’t respect us,” says Jiny Kim, 30, a Seoul office worker who’s intent on remaining childless.
- Low number of women: China’s decades-long “one-child” policy “highlighted a traditional preference for sons” and led to an imbalanced sex-ratio, where there are significantly more men than women.
Other than the fact that we’re talking about an important story with global implications, if you’re in the U.S., you should care because we’re on the same trajectory. We should pay attention so we know how to respond. As the New York Times’ Motoko Rich said last week:
“It’s coming for you. Population growth in the U.S. is at extremely low levels. Italy’s population is aging at the fastest rate in the West. Other countries will look toward Asia and learn from it. They’ll see what to do or what not to do.”
Not everyone is sounding alarm bells, however. Earlier this year, Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, argued that
“Shrinking populations are usually part of a natural, inevitable process, and rather than focus excessively on concerns like labor shortages and pension support, we need to look at the brighter spots for our world.”
So take some time, if you have it and are interested, and do some digging on your own.