The Liberty Times Editorial: Migrants key to population boost

Wed, Nov 08, 2017 - Page 8

Taiwan will soon experience a population crossover as the number of people born each year falls below the number who die. The National Development Council has published population projections every two years, and its Population Projections for ROC (Taiwan): 2016-2060, published in August last year, predicted that this population crossover would happen in 2021.

However, it looks as though the number of babies born this year will set a record low in recent history. If this trend cannot be reversed, the crossover point will arrive two years earlier than forecast.

Fewer births today means there will be fewer people of working age, while the older population increases, resulting in a worsening dependency ratio. This is a critical problem that rings an alarm for national security.

The government has responded by planning to merge the Cabinet’s population and talent task forces into a single unit, inventory the childcare allowances provided by each county, city and special municipalitiy and conduct an overall review of immigration policies.

Population and talent are two sides of the same coin. If there are lots of people, there will be an ample supply of labor, and plenty of talent available. If there are too few people, the labor supply will shrink and talent will tend to be thin on the ground.

Taiwan faces a double crisis of population and talent. What kind of an alarm is being seen for Taiwan’s population?

Of the nation’s 22 counties, cities and special municipalities, 10 have already begun natural population decline, and declining fertility is accompanied by a heavily aging population. As of February, there were more people older than 65 than children younger than 15 in 15 areas and older people accounted for 13.33 percent of the nation’s total population.

The proportion of older people is forecast to exceed 14 percent next year, making Taiwan an aged society, and in 2026 that figure might exceed 20 percent, at which point Taiwan would become a “hyper-aged” society.

Low fertility and aging are problems common to all developed countries. To see what kind of crises a hyper-aged society could create, look no further than Japan. In January, Japan’s total population shrank more than 0.3 million compared with the same period last year, and has fallen for eight years in a row.

For the third year in succession, people older than 65 outnumbered children younger than 15 by a more than 2-1 ratio, and low fertility combined with growing numbers of older people will cause this gap to widen.

As Japan becomes a hyper-aged society, some chronic symptoms have appeared.

The first problem is that older people generally have a strong sense of insecurity about the future, so they prefer to keep a large amount of cash on hand and are unwilling to spend a lot on consumer goods, which weakens domestic demand so that it cannot stimulate growth.

Second, as most older people are retired, there is less labor available and little impetus for innovative research and development. Consequently, Japan’s economy, which had been growing rapidly because of the “population dividend,” has gradually slowed and cooled down.

Third, the dependency ratio has worsened, because the number of workers keeps falling, but they have to support more older people. In addition, low wages resulting from economic stagnation make supporting older people an unbearably heavy burden for young people.

Japanese society is gradually sinking and most people dare not hope for a better tomorrow.

As for Taiwan, which faces a powerful enemy, it must also consider the important issue of a growing shortage of military personnel, be it through conscription or voluntary enlistment, which has serious implications for national security.

What can be done about the aging population crisis? There are two main kinds of policy response. One is to encourage childbirth and the other is to attract immigrants.

Existing government childcare benefits do not provide sufficient incentive to make people want to have more children. To achieve that, Taiwan would have to establish more daycare centers, recruit more government-employed babysitters and build a more comprehensive childcare system. Beyond that, people will not be willing to have more children unless a prosperous economy can be built.

Attracting more immigrants can help fill the population gap. Priority should be given to attracting professional talent in science and technology, which would effectively boost industrial competitiveness and make Taiwan more internationalized.

On Tuesday last week, the legislature passed the Act Governing Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals (外國專業人才延攬及僱用法), which relaxes regulations on visas, residence permits, health insurance and retirement for foreign resident, as well as offering tax concessions to attract foreign white-collar workers and encourage them to become permanent residents. All these measures are intended to welcome more foreign professionals to Taiwan.

Taiwan has taken a step in the right direction by cutting red tape to attract foreign professionals. However, it cannot be denied that the immigrants Taiwan has attracted in the past have mostly come from countries at a lower level of economic development than Taiwan, while most of them have immigrated through marriage to Taiwanese.

Immigrants of this kind have rather uneven levels of culture and education, so those who are employed in production are mostly engaged in low-tech, labor-intensive work that does little to help make Taiwan’s industries more competitive.

Nowadays, the economies of their home countries are surging ahead and offer much greater wages and incomes. In comparison, Taiwan’s economy is in much poorer shape, so people from those countries have less incentive to come to Taiwan, and they no longer need to leave their homelands to make a living.

However, a reduction in this kind of immigration is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it could encourage Taiwanese to stop relying on cheap labor and instead strive to attract high-tech talent from abroad, thereby creating more robust industries.

To solve the problems of an aging population and falling birth rate, apart from improving childcare provision, the challenge of attracting professional talent to live in Taiwan is a still more pressing task.

Taiwan is by nature a society of immigrants. Other than Aborigines, the ancestors of the great majority of Taiwanese were either migrants who came here in search of a better life or refugees who came here to escape wars and other disasters.

Aborigines, migrants and refugees have together formed the diverse blend of communities that is Taiwan today.

Now that Taiwan is reaching the population crossover, encouraging Taiwanese to have more children will be nowhere near enough. Immigration is an effective remedy, so Taiwanese should boldly accept diverse communities and cultures.

Only then can Taiwan get a fresh transfusion of youthful blood and once more play a starring role on the world stage.

Translated by Julian Clegg