It’s no secret that children are expensive to raise. Those little bundles of joy take a lot of money to grow into adults. And that cost is causing some people to put voluntary limits on the size of their families throughout Asia.
Five years after China’s “one child policy” was ended, many people are opting to only have a single child of their own volition. The number of new births in China fell by two million in 2018 to 15.2 million, the second consecutive year birth rates have fallen. The country’s population did grow by 0.38 percent in 2018, but the last time the population grew by that little was in 1961 after the country had just suffered through a massive famine that killed an estimated 40 million people.
Although the population continues to grow, Chinese authorities expect it to peak by 2029 at around 1.44 billion and then begin to shrink. This eventual shrinking population coupled with a rapidly aging population could lead to a strained economy in the future, some experts have said, because it limits the amount of goods and services the country can produce.
“A decline in the population of young people and their smaller number of children ought to have profound repercussions for the Chinese economy,”
Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California Irvine, told the Financial Times.
He estimates that China’s GDP growth could slow by 0.5 percent annually, which may not sound like much, but becomes more pronounced as the growth slows.
The reason for falling birth rates in China likely has multiple reasons behind it, but one of those reasons is because raising a child is prohibitively expensive. A 2018 survey by research firm FT Confidential found that more than half of married couples who said they were delaying having children cited high costs as a reason for the delay, according to the Financial Times.
The newspaper interviewed Chen Xianglin who had given birth to a daughter and whose husband and in-laws were pressuring her to have another child. Although she and her husband have a middle-class income of Rmb300,000 ($44,362), items like nursery fees can reach up to Rmb50,000 a year and additional items like after-school classes and family travel can bump the cost of child-rearing up to Rmb100,000 annually in the country.
China is hardly alone in having decreased birth rates. Throughout the developed world countries’ birth rates are dropping, including Western Europe and other Asian countries. In fact, Japan has the lowest birth rate in the entire world and there are very real concerns about that country’s aging population and inability to maintain its population.
Southeast Asia has similarly seen a slow down with its population growth. According to the ASEAN Post, the total fertility rate of the region has dropped from 5.5 in 1970 down to 2.11 in 2017 and half of the region is already facing the prospect of having insufficient children to maintain the population size, prompting fears of grim economic consequences.
At the Future of Work Conference held in Singapore in April 2019, Josephine Teo, Singapore’s Minister for Manpower, stated that over half of the world’s population live in countries with a total fertility rate below the replacement level of 2.1 needed to adequately replace a country’s population. Based on World Bank data, Brunei, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam are ASEAN countries which have a total fertility rate below the replacement level.
A 2019 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) found that factors driving the drop in fertility levels include rapid urbanization and migration from rural areas to the city, which contributes to the higher costs of raising children and a lack of affordable housing for families.
Another factor is the shift of focus from having as many children as possible to having few children and giving them the best possible life.
As more households require dual-income earners to survive, this also places a strain on people’s ability to rear children, especially if they do not have any parents living with them to help in the raising of children.
Increasing birth rates
With so much riding on having a sufficient total fertility rate, the question is; what can Asian countries do to boost their rates?
The job of raising the low total fertility rate includes building a supportive environment not only for childbirth, but also the raising of children. The EIU recommends four principles as a base for effective policies governments can enact to help them counteract falling birth rates.
Firstly, governments would need to extend family friendly policies that give increased flexibility for parents to work and raise a family at the same time.
Secondly, governments should invest in raising awareness about population concerns, low birth rates, family planning and fertility preservation.
The third recommended principle is to improve access to infertility treatments like assisted reproductive technology. Making this type of technology more affordable and accessible by providing subsidies has been found to increase the number of births.
Lastly, the EIU recommends ensuring affordable housing so people are encouraged to build families.
Businesses can also help by enacting their own policies like providing on-site childcare and more paid family leave for both mothers and fathers.
Financially, tax breaks, cash incentives and subsidies are other options that could help increase fertility rates.
Many Asian nations are facing the prospect of becoming societies where the less productive aging population puts a burden on their respective healthcare systems while a shrinking workforce will face increasing economic hardships and other issues brought on by a simultaneously dwindling and aging population.
As Asian countries continue to grapple with a potential economic crisis brought on by falling birth rates, it is imperative for governments to step in with policies that support families and give them every opportunity to grow.