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Very low fertility: An East Asian dilemma

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In Brief

In the immediate post-war years, two prominent American demographers were attached to the MacArthur administration in Japan.

One was Warren Thompson who, from the 1920s, had been an advocate of control over population growth as a necessary condition of economic development in developing countries.


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The other was Frank Lorimer, who was associated with the Princeton group of demographers which, from the late 1940s, began to argue that family planning was a necessary precursor to development in third world countries. Before this, according to demographic transition theory, control over fertility had been seen as a consequence of development. Fertility in Japan fell rapidly from around 3.7 births per woman in 1950 to around the replacement level of two births per woman in 1960 and development took off much as had been predicted.

This was also the beginning of the end of the colonial era and, one by one, developing countries were gaining independence. In the Cold War context, there was a battle for the hearts and minds of the developing countries. A series of books produced by American demographers in the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in Coale and Hoover’s 1958 book Population Growth and Economic Development in Low-Income Countries, argued the case for control of population growth through concerted family planning programs. Lower birth rates would concentrate the population in the workforce age group and allow scarce capital to be spent on investment rather than consumption. A lower birth rate also meant smaller families, which allowed both parents and the state to put a greater proportion of income towards children’s education One by one, developing countries in Asia adopted this approach. Early participants were the Asian tigers: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and in these countries economic development took off. Ironically, this capitalist idea was adopted in the communist countries, China and Vietnam, from the 1980s onwards.

The theory was that dissemination of control over fertility would lead to the result observed in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, that fertility would fall to the replacement level of two children per woman and then remain at that level. Even China’s one-child policy was designed to reduce fertility in China to about replacement level. However, in every Asian country where fertility has fallen to replacement level, it has continued to fall often to levels described as very low fertility, that is, under 1.5 births per woman. In Asia, very low fertility is found in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand and probably China.

It is widely considered that very low fertility results from the barriers faced by women, now better-educated and more career-oriented, to combine work with family responsibilities. This is particularly an issue in advanced East Asian economies because of the long hours of work that are expected from full-time workers and the difficulty of finding part-time work that is not low-level work. Employers are unwilling to change the current working conditions because they fear they will lose whatever competitive advantage they may have.

In the short term, very low fertility increases GDP per capita because both households and nations benefit from the reduced costs of having fewer children. In the longer term, however, the size of the labour force falls sharply, the total population size spirals downward and the population ages dramatically. These longer-term effects are already well under way in Japan. Socially, in the short term, the legitimate desires of young couples to have children are frustrated. For example, the desired family size of couples in Japan has never fallen below two. And in the longer term, society may adjust itself to the absence of children, making reversal highly problematic (the low fertility trap hypothesis). An absence of children and young workers may also generate a ‘demographic malaise’ — a deficit of incentive — as has been claimed in the Japan case.

What is to be done? Some argue that the effects of very low fertility can be offset by further increases in education — meaning the nation is smaller but smarter. Migration may also be a partial solution. Singapore, somewhat reluctantly, has followed this course. The inexorable mathematics of very low fertility mean that this is not a total solution — fertility must increase in the future. Aware of this, all governments in Asia with very low fertility — with the exception of China, for the time being — have expressed their desire to increase the level of fertility to a sustainable level. And most have already tried to do so with little success. Inappropriately, given their low tax regimes, they have looked to the Nordic countries and France for solutions. They need to be looking instead at the approaches that have kept fertility at relatively high levels in English-speaking countries, especially family-friendly working conditions.

Peter McDonald is Professor of Demography and Director of the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute at the Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Demographic Transition’.


9 responses to “Very low fertility: An East Asian dilemma”

  1. While the low fertility rate in some of the countries may have been attributable to family planning policy in those countries, not all low fertility rates are the result of government policies, good or bad. Further, low fertility rates also occurred in many developed western countries like in Europe.
    If low fertility rates are people’s own choice, why should people be worrying about them?
    In western countries and now in the world, individual choice is almost sacrosanct, such as in terms of market or economic choices.
    It seems a bit ironic that people can’t apply the same principle to individuals’ choice on fertility rates and leave people alone for the decisions that they can make by themselves.

  2. Peter, fertility isn’t the problem in East Asia, it’s immigration. Because East Asia countries still operate under archaic ideas of “blood citizenship”, they restrict immigration . The result is that they have to replenish their populations via births only. If Asian governments had a more inclusive, democratic citizenship ideal, then they would have more immigrants and two problems — imbalances in development, and population demographics in East Asia, would be killed.

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

    • They are smart to keep citizenship tight and to seek population replenishment through higher birth rates. Countries which have allowed for high levels of immigration are now paying the price of the immigrants’ inability to integrate into the culture…Why would East Asians want the possibility of home grown terrorists or even immigrant terrorism?

  3. Given the huge challenges posed by global warming, infectious disease, food security, urban youth unemployment, etc., I don’t understand why “experts” worry about declining populations in East Asia or elsewhere. After all, when I was born in 1941, global populations was 2 billion. Do we have a better world because there are 7 billion people living now? Would it be so bad if we iterated back to 2-3 billion? What is missing in so many of these discussions is the concept of optimum population, not in a static sense but in a dynamic sense. It seems to me that people are smarter than the experts: they have concluded that there are too many people now and they don’t want to add to the burden. It is also hard for many to believe that their children will enjoy a better life than they or their parents did in a world becoming increasingly crowded.

  4. Let’s not forget that there was a racial and eugenics aspect to all this. Japan and Germany had had rapid population growth after WW I and this told in the later conflict. Since the early 1900s there had been worry about not enough white quality Anglo-Saxon stock to keep the other races in their place (be they Irish, Italians, black, brown or yellow). I suspect a bit of digging into their personal libraries would find that the post-war US demographers’ mindsets about Asiatic fertility were formed in some unsavoury intellectual kitchens.

  5. For quite a while I have been thinking about the problem of the low fertility rates in Asian nations and I came up with a theory about one of the possible causes of this problem. I think it might have something to do with their export-oriented economic strategy. This strategy was very successful to develop the economy, but at the same time has a side effect of lowering the birthrates below the natural level.

    How can a country stimulate exports? By keeping labour costs artificially low. This makes their products artificially cheap and stimulates exports. The country can sell a lot of products overseas: industry can develop and the economy can grow rapidly. This is what many Asian countries have done. First Japan, then Taiwan and South Korea and finally China. But the problem is that this subsidises the corporate sector at the expense of households. It is a kind of corporate welfare state, instead of a welfare state for labourers. Workers don’t get the compensation they deserve, so they need to work harder to earn a decent standard of living. The consequence is that it is hard for many workers to start a family and have children: they neither have the time nor the money. And that is exactly what we see in East Asia.

    What would be the solution? Asian nations should dismantle the corporate welfare state and their export-oriented economic strategies. Then workers get a higher salary, they have to work less and have an easier time starting a family. Finally, the birthrate can rise. Governments can do this by not giving special benefits to companies anymore, especially not to big companies like ‘chaebols’ or ‘keiretsu’. Also, they should not artificially lower the value of the currency. This is also a subsidy to companies at the expense of workers. A positive side effect of this policy is that companies are now forced to reduce the inefficiencies and be more innovative. Think about Corporate Japan which has been sluggish for the past 25 years and has been protected by Japan’s policy to keep the yen low. In the short run that can be painful, but it will be healthy in the long run.

    I am a Dutch economist living in Hong Kong.

  6. “It is widely considered that very low fertility results from the barriers faced by women, now better-educated and more career-oriented, to combine work with family responsibilities. This is particularly an issue in advanced East Asian economies economies because of the long hours of work….”

    In point of fact there are more low fertility countries in Europe than there are in Asia and Japanese fertility is not notably low by European standards. Moreover, the European countries with fertility rates the same or lower than that of Japan are not countries associated with long hours of work.

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