East Asia’s booming economies have for years been the envy of the world, but a shortfall in one crucial area — babies — threatens to render yesterday’s tigers toothless.
Some of the world’s lowest birth rates look set to slash labor forces in Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, where fewer workers will support more retirees and their ballooning healthcare and pension costs.
Shuffling along in the vanguard of aging Asia is Japan, whose population started slowly shrinking three years ago, and where almost a quarter of people are more than 65, while children make up just 13 percent.
Japan’s population of 127 million will by 2055 shrivel to 90 million, its level when it kicked off its post-war boom in 1955, said the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
Asian population giant China may still be near its prime, with armies of young rural workers flocking to its factories. However, thanks to the 30-year-old one-child policy, its demographic timebomb is also ticking.
Falling fertility rates are a common trend for societies as they grow richer and many European nations are also below the level needed to keep a population stable — about 2.1 children per woman during her lifetime.
While in traditional rural societies children tend to take over the farm and care for their elderly parents, in modern, urban societies, many couples, with better access to birth control, see offspring as an unaffordable luxury.
China now has 1.6 births per woman, Singapore has 1.2 and South Korea has slightly fewer than 1.1. Taiwan has just 1.03 births per woman.
Polls in Asia indicate that most people are aware of the threat that silent playgrounds and empty classrooms spell for their graying societies, but remain unlikely to rush to their bedrooms to help avert societal doom.
In Taiwan, a survey of childless workers last month found that 87 percent thought the declining birth rate was a serious problem and two thirds worried the result would be a society unable to look after its elderly.
Still, few said they would start making babies to save their country, according to the survey by human resources service 104 Job Bank. Almost two thirds said they did not intend to have any children in future.
One way to counter declining populations is to allow more immigration — but governments from Singapore to Tokyo have been reluctant to do so.
At the core of the problem, say analysts, have been gender attitudes steeped in Confucian traditions — with men still expecting their wives to handle the childcare and household chores that may not top a modern woman’s wishlist.
In Japan, where women remain woefully under-represented in corporate boardrooms, falling pregnant often spells career death.
“Women are voting with their wombs, refraining from having children because the opportunity costs are so high and rigid employment policies make many of them choose between raising a family or pursuing a career,” wrote Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.