Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Very Low Fertility in Asia: Is There a Problem? Can It Be Solved?

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Very Low Fertility in Asia: Is There a Problem? Can It Be Solved?

Article excerpt

Over the past 50 years, economic and social modernization in Asia has been accompanied by a remarkable drop in birth rates. Gains in education, employment, and living standards, combined with dramatic breakthroughs in health and family-planning technology, have led to lower fertility in every country of the region.

The pace of this decline has varied widely. At today's fertility rates, women in Pakistan will typically have three or four children over their lifetimes. By contrast, women in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) will have, on average, only one child (United Nations 2008).

Four societies in East and Southeast Asia have experienced some of the steepest fertility declines in human history. In Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, young men and women are waiting longer to marry, and many who do marry go on to have only one child. Others do not marry or have children at all.

Extremely low birth rates are leading to increasingly elderly populations, with relatively few people left in the workforce to pay for social services or to drive economic growth. And in Japan, overall population numbers are already going down. These trends have prompted government leaders to initiate a variety of policies and programs designed to reverse fertility decline.

The trend was first observed in Japan, where fertility dropped from an average of 4.54 children per woman in 1947 to 2.04 in 1957 (Retherford and Ogawa 2006). This is close to "replacement-level" fertility, defined as an average of 2.1 children per woman-two to replace the woman and her partner plus a little extra fertility to make up for children who do not live to reproductive age. If this fertility level is maintained, population growth will slow and eventually population size will stabilize.

Fertility is expressed in this discussion as the total fertility rate, or TFR, defined as the average number of children that a woman can expect to bear over her lifetime at current age-specific fertility rates, assuming that she survives to the end of her reproductive age span, which is defined as 50 years.

The decline to replacement-level fertility, which first began in Japan in the late 1940s, started about 20 years later in the three other Asian societies. In 1960, women in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan were still having an average of about six children each. Fertility reached the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman in 1975 in Singapore, in 1983 in South Korea, and in 1984 in Taiwan.

Demographers agree that fertility tends to decline with economic growth and improvements in living conditions, and indeed, these East Asian economies were developing rapidly during the period that fertility was going down. The link between economic growth and fertility decline has health and education components. As improved standards of living bring down infant and child mortality, couples can expect that their children will live to adulthood. They rarely have to replace children who die, and they rarely feel the need to have "extra" children to make sure that a certain number will survive.

Expanded educational opportunities contribute to lower fertility in two ways. With the spread of primary and then secondary and college education, children do not join the labor force at an early age but rather remain economically dependent on their parents for many years. Large families become an economic burden, rather than an asset, as couples increasingly focus on the "quality" of their children-measured in large part in terms of education-rather than on numbers alone.

In addition, as girls stay in school longer and then join the labor force, they tend to postpone marriage and childbearing. Given expanded educational and professional opportunities that compete with the traditional roles of housewife and mother, some women choose to avoid marriage and childbearing altogether.

While demographers anticipated that couples would tend to have fewer children as they became more affluent, they did not foresee that fertility would eventually fall to well below replacement level. …

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