The New York Times

August 8, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Aging Nations


HONG KONG — Shanghai has plenty of achievements to boast about but one record suggests a bleaker future — the world’s lowest fertility rate, with 0.7 births per woman of child-bearing age.

In an era in which one frequently hears dire warnings that overpopulation will one day overwhelm the planet, this may not seem like an insurmountable problem. But low fertility rates in Asia, as in Europe, have created an economic time bomb, in which aging populations will be dependent for survival on a rapidly diminishing number of working age people.

In recognition of this demographic crises, which has been developing in Shanghai since birth rates began falling in the 1980s, officials announced recently that the city was selectively easing China’s one-child policy to encourage some families to have two.

Shanghai’s situation is extreme, but it reflects a trend. A recent U.N. report estimates that China’s total population could peak as early as 2020. The median age was forecast to rise from 34 today to 37 by 2020 and 50 by 2050.

And this pattern has been developing in other Chinese societies. Hong Kong has a fertility rate of about 1.0; Taiwan and Singapore are at 1.2. All of these are below the lowest fertility rates in Europe (Italy and Greece both have a rate of 1.3), and the rate of 1.4 for South Korea and Japan.

Although Japan and Europe are usually the focus of talk about the demographic crisis, urban East Asia shows a more consistent pattern.

In China, the Communist Party’s brutal population policy reduced the national fertility rate from 4.8 in the 1950s to around 1.8 today. However, several Asian countries saw almost equally sharp declines without having resorted to state thuggery. Moreover, it seems unlikely that easing the one-child policy now will do much to change practices, at least in urban China, where fertility is well below the national average. Indeed, Shanghai first announced an easing of the one-child policy in 2004, aiming to double the number of newborns by 2009. Those from one-child families or on second marriages were permitted to have more children and official enforcement of the policy relaxed. But the impact has been zero.

This failure mirrors the efforts of governments in tightly run Singapore and freewheeling Hong Kong to influence fertility. Singapore has tried financial incentives as well as exhortation. South Korea and Japan have both offered fiscal incentives, but these have had scant impact.

All this may seem curious in neo-Confucian societies with strong family bonds and values that place family above state. So what is the problem?

Some blame the availability of jobs for women. Some note the reluctance of more highly educated women to marry. In China, the excess of males, thanks to the abortion of female fetuses, has also led to a shortage of young women, which further slows the birth rate and makes women doubly choosy about mates.

But underlying all this may well be the cost of children for families with high housing costs that need to save for health care and retirement because of limited government programs. The decline in extended-family support-systems has not been compensated by other social networks or the state. Thrift is valued but the future worth of children to parents and to society is forgotten. Societies that claim to have strong communal values resist tax funding for nursery schools as dangerous welfarism.

In addressing the problems, officials are reluctant to look at the example of longer-urbanized Western societies, where fertility rates are now close to replacement levels. The United States is one, though its birth rate is more due to recent immigrants than the fertility of older-established populations. More significant are those like the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries, France, New Zealand and to a lesser degree Britain. All are characterized not only by generous welfare and maternal leave provisions, and infant care systems, but also by high levels of sexual equality as measured by incomes and social position. They also happen to have a high proportion of births out of wedlock. This suggests that welfare and tax systems that support childbearing are important in bringing fertility back toward replacement levels.

That is an idea that will yet find favor in neo-Confucian Asia. But these societies need to find very soon measures that reduce the rate of national aging. At the very least, much more generous maternal and child support, leave allowances and protection of women’s careers in the workforce are needed. Maybe Shanghai can lead China out of two interlinked problems: male hegemony and the fertility crisis.