The latest caution about the impact of the nation’s low birth rate was issued on Tuesday.
Low birth rates are a problem being experienced in many nations. It is not a sudden phenomenon, it is part of a long-term trend, with its roots in the shift in a nation’s socioeconomic makeup, coupled with pervasive historical trends.
However, Taiwan is in a particular bind, even compared with other nations.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Taiwan ranks 219 in the world in terms of birth rate. That is seven from the bottom.
While some might suggest a densely populated nation such as Taiwan could perhaps do with fewer people, it is not that simple.
The percentage of the population aged 65 and over is expected to exceed 20 percent in 2026, making Taiwan a “super-aged society.” It is this aging demographic that is at the core of the dangers the phenomenon presents.
Last year, the nation’s total fertility rate — how many children a woman has in her lifetime — was calculated to be 1.2. In 1951 it was 7.05.
A total fertility rate of approximately 2.1 is needed to maintain a stable population. So the population is already shrinking, as is the percentage of young to old.
Fewer babies means an aging population. A higher percentage of senior citizens places a huge burden on tax revenue, pensions and healthcare. Fewer young people means falling international competitiveness, as well as a shrinking pool of talent and potential military recruits.
It also means there are fewer students going through the education system.
The problem was first felt in elementary schools more than a decade ago. Schools closed, teachers lost their jobs and their job security. Then it hit high schools. Now university departments cannot attract enough students and some universities are facing closure or having to merge.
In the immediate post-World War II period, Taiwan was still an agricultural society. In rural society extra children meant extra labor on the farm. Having more babies also increased the chance of producing a male heir — very important in agricultural, Confucian societies. Now, even one child entails a major financial burden on a couple.
People are increasingly living in cities. The decision to have children now involves different criteria, many related to cost.
Can a couple afford to have a child?
Clothes, an extra bedroom, food, school fees, cram-school fees and the need to run a car, as well as childcare fees — it does not come cheap.
Then there are the comforts and freedoms parents need to forgo to look after their children, especially when consumerist-driven media tout the ideal of individual life fulfillment. For many, having a child in an urban environment necessitates both parents working.
In addition, women are increasingly seeking more professional jobs and marrying later or not at all.
The nation’s marriage registration rate is declining, while the vast majority of babies are born — even if not conceived — in wedlock. There is also an increasing trend for women to give birth to their first child in their 30s.
Consequently, one-child or no-child families are becoming more common.
So what is the answer?
Local governments have been offering financial incentives for each child born, as well as childcare subsidies. Clearly, these are not working.
In April, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that it would set up an office tasked with introducing policies to counter the effects of the nation’s declining birth rate. It had better come up with something good — and soon.
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