Many rich (and some not so rich) countries are watching the train wreck that is their demographic profile, heading for the cliff. Japan is the obvious case, Germany and some southern European countries are doing almost as badly. A number of surprise entries – South Korea, Russia, and even China, are facing rapid changes in their population make-up, thanks to rapid growth and a number of previously unforeseen second-order social changes.
There are two ways to slow down an ageing population. The most obvious one – immigration, means you can cherry-pick the young and taxable coming in the door. The other one is, to put it crudely, is breeding. Now leaving the immigration option aside, to achieve a birthrate high enough to hit the replacement number is a huge challenge for a large number of countries. It’s time to realize this: consistent low birthrate is the culmination of rational decisions made as a result of unresolved, and sub-optimal social, cultural and financial concerns.
1. Public and private policies must be geared to alleviate the burden of childbearing. For women, leaving well-paying jobs behind to rear children with little guarantee of career security once they are back in the workplace, makes those lost years so much more unpalatable. Maternity leave options and firm-sponsored daycare options in a few countries are still too few and far in between, and those “benefits” are still the first to go in times of budget cuts and economic turmoil. Additionally, the added burden of children, and the loss of one income during those cash-strapped years will make couples think twice before rearing a few in succession. Thus, both public and private sectors must work in parallel to alleviate and compensate women for this lingering wound.
2. Gender equality is essential. Why, you might ask? Don’t conservative societies typically lead to more stereotypical gender roles, so either contented or suffering housewives will fulfill their duties in birthing babies? Not in economically developed societies with a chauvinistic bend.
Italy and Japan, for example, has two of the lowest birthrates in the world. Both have deeply ingrained patriarchal roots. Japan is infamous for its gender conservatism. Japanese nowadays can still feel the effect of an almost feudal bias that supports various incarnations of its geisha culture. As for Italy, it ranks 67th out of 130 countries based on a report by the World Economic Forum on gender gap. Translating that into the mundane that we can appreciate: an average Italian women has 80 less minutes of leisure time a day than their male counterparts, presumably to cook pasta and do laundry for the entire family.
So it’s little surprise that given a good education and financial independence – which are inevitable by-products of economic growth, faced with male chauvinism – whether incompetence or indifference, women are making their dissent known. As of 2000, one in four Japanese women between 30-34 were unmarried. In Italy, women are unwilling to take on the additional burden of raising children, leading to one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. It is beat by only, Germany and Japan.
3. The more hyper-competitive a society is, the higher the opportunity cost of having and raising children is. From a financial point of view, having children is hardly a winning move. But our evolutionary instincts override cold and mercantile calculations. Yet the act of having children means the female half of the couple will have to forego substantial earning power over her lifetime. Adding to this, the cost of education in certain hypercompetitive societies is holding parents back from having more than one child. In Korea, the cost of raising children is one of the largest contributor that drives the low birthrate trend. Many families struggle to make ends meet. With costs like these, how can you not?
Park spends roughly 700,000 won (about $503) every month on her only son’s education, in a country where the average office worker can have lunch for 5,000 to 7,000 won (between $3.50 and $5). With everyone pouring money into their children’s education, it is hard not to do the same, Park said, explaining the pressure people here feel when it comes to kids. According to a blind survey of 25 mothers whose children attend a kindergarten located in a suburb of Seoul, more than half of the respondents said they believe people choose not to have more children because of the economic burden.
In many east Asian countries, educating a a child that is fit to compete with his/her peers means enrolling primary-school children in endless cram sessions and after-school tutoring schools. On top of this exorbitant cost, both parents and children must adhere to a grueling and militaristic schedule, all in the hopes of getting your children into a good university and a bright future. It is a sacrifice that many families are not prepared to make more than once.
4. Attitudes toward women and their career versus family choices matter. It may come as a shock, but some countries in western Europe, particularly Germany, is still deeply patriarchal. Both the workplace and society in general offers little support or empathy to women that strive for both career and family. Words such as frauenfeindlich (misogynistic), kinderfeindlich (anti-kids), and rabenmutter (Raven’s mother) are still very much in use.
It should be no surprise that “Germany, Italy and Spain, for instance, now have tiny families and are therefore ageing fast, whereas France, Britain and most of the Nordic countries have more children to keep them younger. … America, thanks to a resilient birth rate and high immigration, will still be fairly youthful by mid-century.”
It’s time for some soul-searching, structural changes.