Thu, May 11, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Hong Kong birth rate crashes

As the cost of raising a child to the age of 26 soars to around US$1.5 million, babies have become an indulgence that fewer and fewer couples are willing to spend their cash on


Meet little Lawrence. He's cute, he's clever, he's cherished ... and for every week of his little life, he's costing his parents another US$1,110.

There's nothing unusual about two-year-old Lawrence. He's just like thousands of other middle-class babies born in Hong Kong. The only difference is that, shortly before he was born, his parents sat down and worked out precisely how much he would cost them.

What they discovered goes a long way to explaining why the city has the lowest birth rate in the developed world. By the time Lawrence is 26, parents Janice and Louis expect to be US$1.5 million worse off than if they had never had him.

His kindergarten fees alone will set Janice and Louis back US$32,500, primary and secondary schooling US$232,200 and going to an overseas university and graduate school another US$413,000.

Then there are Lawrence's living costs -- US$122,500 for food, US$241,500 on clothes, US$56,500 on transport, US$93,000 on pocket money, US$22,700 on spectacles and eyecare, US$13,000 on visits to the dentist and US$107,000 on language and music lessons.

Janice, 38, managing director of an advertising agency, admits that if she and her financier husband had done their sums earlier, they may have thought twice about starting a family.

"It was a big dose of reality," she admitted.

"Our reaction was, `We shouldn't have worked that out,' because now we have got a lot of thinking to do about whether we [should] have a second. Cost is a key factor and it has a big influence on the number of children people have in Hong Kong these days. Our parents' generation didn't even think about it. They just went out and had babies and got on with life," she said.

In today's Hong Kong, however, babies have become a luxury of choice and an indulgence that fewer and fewer young couples in the wealthy city of 6.8 million are opting to spend their hard-earned salaries upon.

In an increasingly competitive society, the cost of rearing a child to have the best possible chance of success is higher than ever. As a result, most couples now choose to remain childless or to stop at one child, and Hong Kong's birthrate has fallen from nearly three children per woman in 1980 to 0.9 last year.

It is a dilemma which has left Hong Kong facing a population crisis, with the number of elderly people aged over 64 expected to triple proportionately and account for nearly half the population by 2033.

There are cheaper choices, of course -- state schools, economies on clothes and less out-of-school activities. Louis and Janice looked into the potential savings and concluded that the most economical child-rearing in Hong Kong would leave them with a large bill of US$335,000 over 26 years.

Susan Lo, senior doctor with the Hong Kong Family Planning Association and mother of an eight-year-old daughter, said there had been a fundamental generational shift in family thinking.

"In the old days, people like my parents would think, `I will have children to safeguard my retirement. They will support me financially and psychologically and care for me in my old age,'" Lo said.

"If you ask the younger generation today, they will tell you it is nonsense to think of supporting your parents. They believe everybody should be responsible for their own lives," she said.

Lo conducted studies on Hong Kong couples considering having children and couples who have had one or two children and found that financial concerns were high on the anxiety list for both groups.

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