Tue, Aug 23, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Defusing the population time bomb

By Yang Wen-shan 楊文山

Last month’s edition of Science ran a series of demographic papers and special reports discussing current global population issues. One of these discussed the Taiwanese government’s population policies and the measures it has introduced to encourage more women to give birth.

These policies were also compared with those of other Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Last year, Taiwan’s total fertility rate (TFR) for women was under 0.9, the lowest in the world. If one were to take this TFR and convert it into the cohort fertility rate for women in Taiwan — cohort here meaning other individuals of shared circumstances within a given period of time — to estimate the fertility rate for a woman throughout her lifetime, then in the future about 20 percent of women in this country will not have children. This is a rather startling statistic and a future demographic trend that should not be taken lightly.

Demographic experts regard a TFR below the critical threshold of 1.3 as the “lowest-low fertility rate,” because in a given society, assuming no immigration or emigration, a TFR this low would cause the population to virtually halve within a single generation, defined here as 45 years. If this is the case, the nation’s economy will stagnate and the problem of caring for an aging population will become a huge challenge.

The TFR figures for women in Taiwan published by the Ministry of the Interior are actually the period total fertility rate (PTFR) for women, this being calculated from the current fertility rate for women. However, the important figure is the completed cohort fertility rate (CCFR), a measure of the number of offspring actually produced by women before they reach 50, the average age of menopause. According to the latest figures, Taiwan’s CCFR for women beyond their child-bearing age was in the 1.3 to 1.5 range, not the present figure of 0.9.

Such estimates also need to take into consideration whether or not Taiwanese women are continuing to put off having children. This is because if they continue to marry later, remain single, or decide to delay having their first child, many will fail to achieve the ideal fertility rate, or number of births, and will decide to wait until the optimum age to have children, which is about 34.

When it comes to the issue of fertility, society tends to defer to individual choice. However, the number of children born affects the future of every individual in society. If nobody wants to have children today, in 20 or 30 years’ time we will lack the necessary amount of workers paying taxes to support social welfare and medical treatment for the population.

In that context, today’s low fertility rates are clearly -something that society as a whole should be taking seriously.

Consequently, we should regard the current fertility rate and the decision by young people to not have children, as a human rights issue. Of course individuals have the right to choose whether they have children, but those individuals who do decide to have children should be universally encouraged, ensuring that they get the assistance they need.

The government needs to devise a comprehensive set of proposals for its policy on fertility to encourage young people to enter into marriage and start a family, and to make sure they can afford to raise their children. In order to develop an effective, viable policy that will secure an increase in the fertility rate, there needs to be a broad-based consensus in society.

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