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HONOLULU (Dec. 15, 2010)—Over the past fifty years, economic and social modernization in Asia has been accompanied by a remarkable drop in birth rates. Gains in education, employment and living standards, combined with dramatic breakthroughs in health and family-planning technology, have led to lower fertility in every country of the region, according to a research paper by Sidney B. Westley, Minja Kim Choe, and Robert D. Retherford of the East-West Center in Honolulu.

The unexpected trend has raised concerns about the social and economic impact of extremely low fertility. One of the impacts cited in the paper, titled “Very Low Fertility in Asia: Is There a Problem? Can It Be Solved?” is expanding elderly populations and a shrinking workforce to pay for social services and drive economic growth.

(Visit http://vimeo.com/17637897 to view a video of a related seminar on the economic and strategic implications of low fertility in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.)

Among the causes of decreasing birthrates, according to the researchers, is the rise in women’s education levels and employment rates that accompany increased prosperity, leading women to postpone childbirth or hold off altogether. Inflexible employment practices and work cultures incompatible with family life contribute to the high cost of motherhood, they write.

According to Westley, Choe, and Retherford, “Cost becomes an … important factor when considering having a child - both the cost of raising the child and the opportunity cost for the woman who interrupts her career to give birth and care for a baby.”

Today, four of Asia’s most prosperous economies – Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan – now have among the lowest birth rates in the world. Despite the statistics, survey responses say nearly all young women in these societies want to marry and have children. The question demographers and policymakers are now facing is whether government policies and programs that are attempting to raise fertility can be effective in helping them have the children they say they want.

In the research paper, Westley, Choe, and Retherford categorize such policies into five general categories:

  • Monetary support for families with children, either in the form of cash payment or tax deductions.
  • Maternity leave and childcare leave from work, either for mothers or for both parents, and either paid or unpaid.
  • Assistance with childcare through daycare centers, after-school programs, and monetary support for childcare at home.
  • Other programs that help young families, such as housing preferences and medical insurance that covers expenses related to pregnancy and childbirth.
  • Dating services and other programs that encourage young people to marry.

Some observers have commented that the pronatalist policies in East Asian countries have failed, because there is no evidence that fertility has risen since their introduction. However, many of these policies and programs are limited in scope and have been introduced quite recently. It’s still too soon to tell whether they will achieve their objectives, the authors write.

The paper concludes, “It therefore seems likely that fertility in East Asian societies will remain low – at least for the foreseeable future – as women make difficult choices between careers and motherhood.”

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