Decline Of The Asian Family: Drop In Births Threatens Economic Ascendancy

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In the last half century, East Asia emerged as the uber-performer on the global economic stage. The various countries in the region found success with substantially different systems: state-led capitalism in South Korea, Singapore and Japan; wild and wooly, competitive, entrepreneur-led growth in Taiwan and Hong Kong; and more recently, what Deng Xiaoping once described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

But these countries shared one common element: a strong Confucian family ethos. Three of Confucianism’s five key relationships are familial, led by the all-important father-son tie. In East Asia, business has often been driven by familial concerns. Hard-driving “tiger Moms” or workaholic Dads sacrificed all for the benefit of the next generation. But now that foundation is beginning to crumble, and if the trend is not reduced, the 50-year-long ascendency of the region could be threatened.

The signs of an emerging Asian malaise can be seen in slowing economies — in Japan’s case an almost two-decade-long stagnation. South Korea and Singapore may grow this year at levels approaching that of the United States — mediocre by their historic standards. The notion of assured further progress is fading, as populations age and domestic markets seem unlikely to expand much.

This malaise is reflect in declining birthrates, which now rival southern Europe for the world’s lowest, as demonstrated in a new report by myself and colleagues at the Singapore Civil Service College. Equally troubling, up to a quarter of all East Asian women, estimates the National University of Singapore’s Gavin Jones, will remain single by age 50, and up to a third will remain childless. Since few Asian women, unlike their North American or northern European counterparts, have children out of wedlock, the overall effect on already poor demographics could be catastrophic.

The reasons for this decline in marriage and family are complex. Demographers such as Austria’s Wolfgang Lutz see a reinforcing pattern in which singleness becomes normative and child-rearing more difficult, and less widely supported by society. This creates, as my Singaporean colleague Anuradha Schoff puts it, “an ecosystem where childlessness is the preferred option.”

Interviews and survey data from various East Asian countries show that part of the problem is extremely high housing costs — roughly twice or more as a percentage of income as in the United States, according to demographer Wendell Cox — and often pitiably small space. No surprise, then, that Asians coming to the United States flock to suburbs, increasingly in the more affordable parts of the country.

The extremely competitive work environment, which now includes growing numbers of well-educated females, is having a negative impact on birth rates. In 1970, less than half of women in Japan and Korea were working, and only one-fifth in Singapore. By 2004, that number had increased to three-quarters in Japan, and roughly three in five in South Korea and Singapore, notes NUS’ Gavin Jones. As one researcher in Singapore explained, how could it be possible for her to start a family when she has to compete with other women who are not so encumbered? It made no sense to her to have children, even if the state provided her with as much as a million dollars.

Huge time commitments at work, notes demographer Phil Longman, often work against potential parents. “As modern societies demand more and more investment in human capital,” he suggests” this demand threatens its own supply.”

Then there are distinctly cultural issues, such as the perceived unwillingness of many East Asian men to share child-raising duties with their wives. And among parents, the much-celebrated obsession with achievement and education — also generally favored by Mandarins around the region — tends to make child-bearing seem ever more onerous and expensive. In this sense, the Confucian ethic on education undermines its paramount familialistic values.

Japan represents the cutting edge of this lurch into what may in a decade be the general East Asian pattern. By 2010, a third of Japanese women entering their 30s were single, as were roughly one in five of those entering their 40s. That is roughly eight times the percentage in 1960, and twice as many as in 2000. By 2030, according to sociologist Mika Toyota, almost one in three Japanese males may be unmarried by age 50.

Lacking the innovative energy of new entrants into the workplace and the economic stimulus of expanding households, Japan’s economy has become ever more stagnant and inward looking. And most Japanese view the future as far from bright; the Japanese, according to Gallup, are now among the most pessimistic people on the planet. Not too far behind them are, surprisingly, the Singaporeans.

In Japan, the demographic clock is already ticking toward a kind of demographic doomsday. It’s been over two decades since the number of Japanese over 65 exceeded the number of those under 15, and the trajectory points to a time — by 2050 – when Japan will have 3.7 times as many people 65 and older as 15 and under, according to U.N. estimates. In 2050, the number of people over 80 will be 10% greater than the 15 and under population.

Even Tokyo faces Japan’s emerging demographic winter. Given current trends away from family formation, Tokyo, now the world’s most populous metropolitan area, may see its population drop from its current 35 million to roughly half that in 2100. By then Japan’s overall population could fall to 48 million, according to Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. And what will be left of the Japanese will be very urban, very old, and at some point, probably well before, bereft of savings.

The other East Asian countries could face a similar fate, albeit a decade or two later. In Taiwan, 30% of women aged between 30 and 34 are single; only 30 years ago, just 2% of women were. In three decades, “remaining single and childless” merged from a rarity to a commonplace, and appears to be picking up momentum. In a 2011 poll of Taiwanese women under 50, a huge majority claimed they did not want children.

For its part, Singapore has been able to keep itself going largely by importing talent from abroad. But the mass migration of newcomers, who have increased tremendously as a portion of the population, has also sparked widespread resentment among Singaporeans faced with ever greater congestion, crowding, high property prices and ever-greater competition for good jobs.

Unlike intrinsically multicultural Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and China will struggle with the notion of tapping immigration to forestall their problems. As China progresses and urbanises, its demography increasingly mimics that of the Tigers, just as they now resemble Japan. Most of the world’s decline in children and young workers between 15 and 19 will take place in China; the People’s Republic will lose 60 million people under 15 years of age by 2050, approximately Italy’s population. It will gain nearly 190 million people 65 and over, approximately the population of Pakistan, which is the world’s fourth most populous country.

In the longer run, these countries will have to reconsider their priorities. In order to restore a sense of a prosperous future, they must first consider what factors would encourage families and child-bearing in their societies. This may, among other things, require “tiger Moms” and workaholic Dads, as well as the bureaucracy, to change their ways. As my Japanese mentor Jiro Tokuyama used to say, East Asia will have to unlearn the secrets of its past success.