South Korea to China: Why is East Asia producing so few babies?

South Korea’s low birthrate has been declared a national emergency despite its government’s efforts to incentivise people into parenthood by paying 2 million won ($1,510) on the birth of each child as well as providing a host of other benefits to parents.

The country is one of several in East and Southeast Asia where birthrates have declined rapidly in recent years. Indeed, all five of the countries with the world’s lowest birthrates (stripping out Ukraine, which is undergoing a war) are in East Asia, according to a 2023 CIA report.

Which countries have the lowest birthrates?

South Korea, which already had one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, has experienced yet another drop in its birthrate.

Last month, Statistics Korea published data showing that the country’s birthrate has dropped by 8 percent in 2023 to 0.72 compared with 2022 when it was 0.78. The birthrate refers to the number of children the average woman will have during her lifetime.

Experts are warning that South Korea’s population of 51 million people may halve by 2100 if this rate of decline continues.

According to the 2023 CIA publication comparing fertility rates around the world, the birthrate decline is much sharper in East Asia than any other region.

The CIA’s report puts South Korea’s birthrate a little higher than the country’s own estimate – at 1.11. However, this is still the second-lowest in the world.

According to the CIA report, the birthrate in self-governed Taiwan is the lowest in the world at just 1.09 while in Singapore and Hong Kong, the birthrates are 1.17 and 1.23, respectively.

China, where a strict one-child policy was in place from 1980 to 2015, has a birthrate of 1.45. Japan, which has been facing the issue of an ageing population for some time, has a birthrate of 1.39.

These figures are in stark contrast to other parts of the world. The 10 countries with the highest birthrates are all in Africa. Niger is the highest at 6.73, followed by Angola at 5.76.

In the West, birthrates are much lower than this but still higher than East Asia. In the United States, it is 1.84 while it is 1.58 in Germany.

Why are birthrates in East Asia dropping?

While demographers refer to the birthrate as the fertility rate, this term encompasses those who choose not to have children as well as those who are unable to have children.

There are several reasons for the decline in Asia.

Economic growth and improving living conditions have reduced child mortality rates, and since more children are expected to live into adulthood, this has led to couples having fewer children, said analysts at the East-West Center, an international research organisation.

The analysts explained in an article in Time magazine that economic growth and educational opportunities for women have also led them to resist traditional roles, such as housewife and mother. As a result, they may “choose to avoid marriage and childbearing altogether”.

However, Ayo Wahlberg, a professor in the anthropology department at the University of Copenhagen, told Al Jazeera that this explanation is an “incomplete description of what’s going on”. While there may be a correlation between more women being employed and lower birthrates, Wahlberg said both men and women are working longer hours than they did in the past, giving them less time and energy to dedicate to childcare.

He cited the example of China’s “996 working hour system”, under which some companies expect people to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Wahlberg added that in South Korea, the working conditions are similarly stringent. “When are you going to have the time to look after a child in such cases?” he asked.

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