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Why Women in Asia Are Having Fewer Babies

7 minute read

Until the 1970s, women in the most prosperous Asian economies like South Korea, Japan, and China were having more than five children on average. Today, that trend is starkly different. For the sixth consecutive year, South Korea has recorded the world’s lowest fertility rate. In the latest figures released by the government on Feb. 28, that number sunk to a new low—from 0.84 children per couple in 2022 to 0.81 in 2023. By 2024, the rate is projected to fall even further to 0.68.

The trend is mirrored elsewhere. For the last 70 years, fertility rates have decreased worldwide, with a total decline of 50%. Even in the most advanced economies, the rate is now 1.6 children per couple, compared to the recommended rate of 2.1 for countries wanting to keep a steady population without any migration.

But rates in these East Asian countries have fallen at a steeper rate than anywhere else. In South Korea, falling birth rates are one of the three crucial factors that characterize what’s called the “Sampo,” or “three giving-up” generation: women in their 20s and 30s who have given up dating, marriage, and having children, in part because of economic pressures. In 2018, then-Vice Finance Minister Minister Kim Yong-beom declared this trend a “death cross.” In Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently issued a dire warning that the country was “on the brink” of being “socially dysfunctional.” China, which reversed its one-child policy in 2016 to encourage families to have more children, lost its record of being the most populous country to India last year after its population dropped for the first time in six decades.

Read More: How India’s Record-Breaking Population Will Shape the World

Leaders say the population decline is the biggest risk to economic growth and social development. But population experts argue these declines are also an opportunity—to create systems better adapted to the needs of society today through policy reform that invests in better social structures. Sarah Harper, the Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, argues that “reducing populations, while novel historically, has many advantages for the 21st century,” including improving “gender equality and respect for women’s choices."

What's driving the decline in birth rates?

Generally, fertility rates tend to decline when a country experiences economic growth and better living conditions. “As improved standards of living bring down infant and child mortality, couples can expect that their children will live to adulthood,” note analysts at the East-West Center. That makes them likely to have fewer children.

Economic growth also tends to expand educational opportunities, which means that women suddenly find themselves questioning traditional roles of housewife and mother. As a result, they may “choose to avoid marriage and childbearing altogether,” the analysts say.

As countries become wealthier, the cost of raising children goes up too—though that's one of several factors. Michael Herrmann, a senior adviser on economics and demography with the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, says that women generally consider how to balance three aspects when having children: family life and work; income and child-rearing costs; and gender equality, which can help with sharing the caregiving load. “If the system or the economy doesn't afford women equal opportunities, they may think twice about having children,” he says.

That appears true of South Korea, where women say they often feel forced to choose between having a career or a family. As a result, more women are making the choice not to get married. The average age of a new mother is now 32, up from 30 in 2005, according to the National Statistical Office.

Some studies suggest that sex lives and lifestyles have changed as well. For example, in Japan, people have their first kiss at a later and later age (it now averages 18 or 19), and get into relationships even later in life.

How are governments trying to reverse the trend?

The population crisis has spurred leaders into action, with many directing billions of dollars into programs they hope will convince women to have children.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in launched several policies to try and incentivize women to have more children, including cash incentives for families. Under the scheme, every child born from 2022 onwards receives a cash bonus of 2 million won ($1,850) to help cover prenatal expenses, in addition to a monthly payout that increases every month until the baby turns one. Other incentives include free daycare, subsidized pay during childcare leave, and even group blind dates for public servants to try and matchmake couples. 

In China, many experts say the reversal of the one-child policy may have come too late. After seeing an initial uptick in births, the number has steadily declined by nearly 50%—from 17.86 million in 2016 to just 9.56 million in 2022, according to a report published by the National Health Commission. The Chinese government also tried to introduce new policies to encourage couples to have more children, enhance childcare and improve housing facilities for families with children. Recently, some academics have even proposed taxing couples for having too few children, while making access to abortion and divorce harder.

Read More: Can China’s Baby Bust Be Reversed? Don’t Count On It

In Japan, Kishida has said he wants the government to double its spending on child-related programs, with a new government agency expected to be set up in April to focus on the issue. “In thinking of the sustainability and inclusiveness of our nation’s economy and society, we place child-rearing support as our most important policy,” he told lawmakers in January. 

For the most part, this approach hasn't worked. It’s unlikely that Asia’s steep fertility decline will be reversed anytime soon. In fact, by 2050, one in three people across Asia is expected to be over the age of 65, according to data from the UN’s World Population Prospects. What’s more, surveys in South Korea show that women who want children want to have more than one child. “What the government needs to address, then, is how they can empower women to get there,” says Herrmann.

Men have a big part to play: One study conducted in 2022 by the National Bureau of Economics Research found that in countries like Iceland and Sweden, where men had a higher participation rate in typical housework and childcare, the fertility rate was 1.8 or higher. Conversely, countries with the lowest contribution from men, like South Korea and Japan, have lower fertility rates. “These facts suggest that bargaining between mothers and fathers plays an important role in determining fertility,” the study’s authors wrote. 

Rather than focusing on how to reverse the population decline, experts also say governments may be better off trying to find ways to live with it. That means that in the longer term, they will need to find other solutions to ensure that the workforce stays buoyant: “more women productive in the labor market, supporting older workers to stay active for longer, ensuring a steady flow of migrants to compensate for our lack of workers,” says Harper.

But more than that, Harper says that the overall trend means governments need to ensure women have the economic and social support to enable them to have the number of children they desire—or to remain childfree.

Others note the decline in birth rates may not necessarily be a bad thing. Indeed, Herrmann says that the countries facing population decline are at a very advanced stage of development. “They have enormous technological capabilities that are ahead of the curve, a very high labor productivity growth, and can compensate or cope with a shrinking and aging population.”

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com