Tue, Nov 24, 2009 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE : Dwindling Taiwanese birth rate causes worry

AFP , TAIPEI

As a schoolteacher, Ariel Shen has been observing the nation’s declining birth rate from up close.

Five years ago, each classroom at her middle school in Taipei had 28 students, but now that number has dropped to 20, and the trend shows no sign of abating.

She is thinking about starting a business just to stay secure financially.

“My colleagues and I are definitely very concerned,” 37-year-old Shen said. “Some have already had to leave for other schools.”

Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, now has the dubious distinction of having the lowest birth rate in the world, the ­Washington-based Population Reference Bureau think tank said.

The Ministry of the Interior says just 1.05 children are born per woman, down from 7.04 in 1951 and 2.10 as late as 1984.

“It’s not just the lowest level ever in Taiwan, it’s the lowest level in history. Nobody has ever gone that low,” said Carl Haub, a demographer at the Washington bureau.

The development is a paradox in a society that remains devoted to Chinese tradition, where offspring are considered a blessing and a guarantee a family’s lineage will continue into the future.

Part of the explanation is economic and reflects the way a child has changed from being an asset in the rural society of half a century ago — an extra pair of hands at the family farm — to a major financial burden.

Rising prices of everything from healthcare to education have made many think twice before they have another child.

“There’s also an unmeasurable part of it, and no one can quantify this. Young people don’t come out of school with the idea that they want to raise a family,” Haub said. “There’s a reaction among young women, who see how many children their mothers had, and watched them spend all that time looking after household matters, and that’s not necessarily what they want to do.”

Weakening family ties consolidate this mindset, as young people migrate from the countryside into the cities, away from the watchful eyes of their parents and grandparents.

This relieves them from pressure put on them by the older generation to produce children, and many instead opt for a materially comfortable single existence.

They are encouraged by modern media that hail the ideal of ­individual fulfillment, a far cry from the family-oriented tradition, experts said.

The consequences will be felt sooner than many expect, and it will be only a few years before things start changing profoundly, they said.

Last month, the education ministry said that more than one in three of Taiwan’s 164 colleges were likely to be forced to close by 2021 because of a shortage of students.

Much more serious, the dearth of births will eventually mean there are not enough people in the labor force to support a growing number of elderly.

Current forecasts are that in 2051, more than one in three Taiwanese will be 65 years or older, up from one in 10 now.

Importing labor from China on a massive scale would seem a solution, given the linguistic and cultural similarities, but it is not politically feasible, analysts said.

Perhaps a majority of people in Taiwan are concerned about being devoured by a rapidly growing Chinese giant, and letting large armies of workers come would do nothing to reassure them.

This means that if Taiwan wants to maintain its population, it has to increase its fertility rate, analysts say.

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