What better time to talk about reproduction than in the Year of the Rabbit?
In a report delivered last week to the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Central Standing Committee, Minister without Portfolio James Hsueh (薛承泰) reiterated what is already common knowledge: Taiwan’s birthrate is one of the lowest in the world and continues to drop, from 8.29 births per 1,000 people in 2009, to 7.21 last year.
Indeed the rate of decline has itself accelerated so much that officials have had to revise the projection for when the population will actually start to shrink. In 2008, it was estimated that Taiwan would reach zero growth in 2026; now it is 2022.
The consequences of such trends are entirely negative. For one, a declining birthrate ages the population, increasing the percentage of elderly that must be supported by those still working. Currently 10.74 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people are over 65, well above the 7 percent at which a society is defined as “ageing” by the WHO.
Just as important as the ratio of workers to non-workers is the quality of the workforce itself. Young workers tend to be better educated and more proficient with new technology. They are also more ambitious, innovative and willing to take risks. So even an aging population that remains healthy and productive will not compensate for a decline in new blood entering the system.
Last month, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) called the dwindling birthrate a national security issue and ordered his administration to begin making plans. However, what these have amounted to so far is less than impressive. Among Hsueh’s proposals was that the government should give out honeymoon vouchers and promote having children through popular TV programs such as soap operas.
Instead of criticizing such a lackluster response, Ma applauded the suggestions and added that committee members should themselves have more children. He also said that all programs should be fast tracked because next year is the Year of the Dragon, an auspicious year in the Chinese zodiac for having babies.
Such solutions to population decline verge on idiotic. Indeed, the sheer ineptitude of the government’s response increases the problem by heightening one of its main causes, which is that people anxious about the future are less likely to make the kind of long-term commitment of time, money and energy that child rearing represents. What does it say for Taiwan’s future when the president looks to soap operas and the zodiac to resolve national security issues?
More substantial measures have been proposed, most involving cash incentives for having children. However, these are either too meager or too short-term to have a serious effect. All are band-aid responses to a problem that calls for broad-based, even visionary solutions. They are also incentives aimed at the lowest income levels of society, leaving out a middle class that increasingly bears the burden of rising costs, stagnating salaries and declining job prospects.
Could it be that deep down, Ma believes that Taiwan’s birthrate is just one more problem that will be resolved through closer ties with China? Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of Beijing’s one-child policy and a preference for boys, China’s demographic outlook is even worse than Taiwan’s.
If Taiwan is going to avoid demographic disaster, it must develop policies that are generous and long term. These policies must also address the problem in terms that are more than purely economic — and more than reproductive. In addition to consulting the zodiac, Ma may wish to look at countries like Australia, Canada and the US, which have managed their demographics more successfully through a combination of social support for families, immigration and planning to keep their aging citizens healthy and productive.