Fertility levels drop below one in many Asian nations: Data

Couples choosing to not have children, citizens opting to remain single, and spiralling costs to raise children may all have contributed to the dip

May 02, 2024 08:30 am | Updated 11:07 am IST

Fertility rates in South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan rates are currently lower than one.

Fertility rates in South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan rates are currently lower than one. | Photo Credit: David Goldman

Many countries in East and Southeast Asia are in the middle of a population crisis, with fewer births every year and record-low fertility rates. In March this year, several hospitals in China stopped offering newborn delivery services due to declining demand, Reuters reported. In fact, with the fertility rates in South Korea hitting rock bottom, the city of Seongnam, the fourth largest in the country, resorted to hosting mass blind dates hoping that the falling birth rates would reverse.

This was not always the case. Between 1950 and 1970, fertility rates in East Asian and Southeast Asian countries ranged from 3.5 to 7.5. The total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime. A TFR of 2.1 (the ‘replacement level’) is required to ensure that the population size remains stable.

Currently, in four countries — South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — the fertility rates are lower than one. This means that while the majority of women in these countries have only one child, many are also not choosing to have children, pulling down the average below one. For instance, in South Korea, the TFR slid to a record low of 0.72 in 2023, while in Hong Kong, the TFR was 0.701 in 2022. Both these countries currently have among the lowest fertility rates in the world. 

Chart 1 | The chart shows the TFR in China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, over 50 years from 1950.

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In the six countries considered, not only is the TFR significantly lower than 2.1, it has seen a drastic reduction over time. This is evident when the TFR of these countries is compared with that of Ukraine, Finland, Italy, and Spain — countries which also have among the lowest TFRs in the world currently (Chart 2). For instance, in a span of 50 years, China reduced its TFR from 6.51 (1968) to 1.16 (2021) through various policies, while Spain’s TFR came down gradually from 2.87 to 1.28. India’s TFR also witnessed a drop from over 5.7 to 2.03 in the same period, though not as sharp as that of China’s.

Chart 2 | The chart compares the TFR of China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India with Ukraine, Finland, Italy and Spain (countries which also have among the lowest TFRs).

The sharp fall in China’s TFR is attributable largely to policies its government adopted to control population growth. South Korea’s slogan in the 1980s, “Even two children per family are too many for our crowded country”, and Singapore’s slogan for its two-child policy, “The more you have, the less they get — two is enough”, are examples of strict family planning measures.

The drastic drop in fertility rate can also be attributed to women now having more opportunities to build a career, dropping marriage rates, the spiralling cost of raising a child, and income lost when a pregnant woman’s career is interrupted, according to the think tank, East-West Centre.

Poor fertility rates lead to an imbalance in the population, with older people forming a larger share. As of 2023, a third of the population was aged over 65 in Japan and by the early 2030s, the share of people aged over 65 will increase to 30% in South Korea and Hong Kong. 

Chart 3 | The chart shows the year when about 5% (blue), 15% (light blue), and 30% (red) of a country’s population was aged or will be aged over 65. 

While countries took many years to reach the 15% mark from 5%, they are estimated to reach the 30% mark in a relatively quicker manner, indicating the rapid ageing of the population.

Chart 4 | The chart lists the financial support and other expensive programmes that governments have introduced to incentivise childbirths in select countries. 

South Korea, for instance, has spent $211 billion to increase fertility rates since 2006. But the fertility curves of these countries haven’t reversed yet.

Source: National statistical organisations, World Population Prospects, World Bank


Also read: The reason for falling fertility levels

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