HONOLULU (Apr. 10, 2007)—There has been both good and bad news coming out of Asia on the population front. The good news is many Asians are living longer. The bad news is not only are many living longer but there are fewer “new Asians” coming on to the scene. And, that demographic transition is rife with important implications for economic growth and living standards in many Asian countries, especially in Northeast and East Asia.


Andrew Mason, senior fellow at the East-West Center (EWC) in Honolulu and a professor of economics at the University of Hawaii, points out that “Japan is now the oldest population in the world, but others are catching up.” The reasons others are snapping at Japan’s heels for the dubious title are not only improved living and health conditions but rapidly declining birth rates. Mason notes that Singapore “has reached 1.2 births per woman … (and) South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world – slightly less than 1.1 births per woman.” Mason adds that China may not be far behind, already boasting an anemic birth rate of 1.6, and “it will soon begin to experience rapid aging … just how rapid is unknown and will depend in part on how quickly China moves to relax the one-child policy.”


Policy decisions undoubtedly play a major role in the directions birth rates take in many countries. But other just as important factors rear their heads as the desire to have and rear children declines.
Minja Kim Choe, EWC senior fellow and family and gender expert, says to understand the issue, especially in Korea, a closer look must be taken at “attitudes on marriage, childbearing, and gender roles,” with economics playing a large role, too. In a recent study, she notes that the traditional Korean family system, based on Confucian ideology and formalized by the Yi dynasty in the mid-17th century, has undergone major changes with the industrialization and modernization of the country over the past few decades. “It is not surprising then,” Choe says, “that women in modern Korea, who have (a) high level of education and therefore have the potential for economic independence, have developed non-traditional views on marriage,” and childbearing.


But it is not just Korean women.


Choe says that studies found that an “increasing proportion of men and women view marriage as not necessary for (a) full and satisfying life.” In fact, of Koreans of “prime marriage age, between 20 and 34, surveyed in 2003 one third of the women and one in six men had, what Choe calls, a “neutral attitude” on marriage, meaning they believed marriage did not matter one way or the other. Perhaps not the Confucian attitude their ancestors would have liked, but one that clearly shows the realization that “marriage demands more changes and added responsibilities,” especially for women.


But, those changing attitudes are causing problems for the majority of Koreans who still want to marry. The window of marriage opportunity is not a large one. Choe says, “the appropriate age for marriage (is) for women beginning in their late 20s by their own choice, and ending before age 30 by the choice of (their) potential husbands.”  


Attitudes toward childbearing also bear out the changing environment in Korea.


Choe notes that, according to survey data, “preferred family size expressed as (an) ideal number of children or intended number of children has changed little since 1980,” decreasing only slightly from 2.1 to 1.9. But, she points out, “the view that ‘it is necessary to have children’ has declined substantially.” A trend, Choe believes, “suggests that (an) increasing proportion of women will be evaluating costs and benefits of having children vis-à-vis other options in life such as having more time for employment and other non-familial activities.”


And perhaps, according to Choe, that is because “young men and women in their early thirties … grew up during the period when South Korea experienced its most rapid economic growth. It is likely they have formed a taste for a high level of consumption and high expectations of social and economic advances in their adult life.” Now experiencing slower economic growth and higher unemployment rates, many of those same young people as they become of marriage age may be taking pause. She notes, “The new and prospective parents are likely to have benefited from a high level of education,” and an improved standard of living, “and want to provide their children” similar advantages. Something they may not be able to do.


The Korean government is aware of the growing birth rate decline problem and has advanced numerous policies in the past few years to attempt a solution, including improved maternity leave, childcare subsidies, and baby bonuses. But, Choe says, “These measures may have some effect” on couples merely postponing childbearing, but they “are likely to be short lived at best.” She adds, for a sustained reversal in the falling birth rate, “More long-range policies on improving economic conditions of the young adults, reducing the cost of children’s education, and supporting egalitarian gender roles need to be established and implemented.”


The problems Choe outlines in Korea are familiar to another population expert, Robert Retherford, who has done extensive studies on similar phenomena in Japan in collaboration with colleagues from Nihon University’s Population Research Institute in Tokyo. The EWC senior fellow and coordinator of the EWC’s program on Population and Health, says the problems are serious with potentially alarming consequences. “How Japan responds to these challenges could have a profound influence on health care, elderly care and economic growth in the decades ahead,” he notes.


Retherford points out since the early 1990s Japanese policymakers have been trying to coax Japanese into marrying earlier and raising bigger families. They have met with little or no success. He notes that “the present pattern of age-specific birth rates, if unchanged in the future, will eventually cause Japan’s population to decline at a constant rate of 38 percent every 30 years.”


Japan’s largely unsuccessful attempts at breathing life into its “baby bust” have been ongoing since 1990 and “have relied on providing subsidies for childbearing and encouraging employers to creating policies conducive to raising families,” including such steps as childcare leave, expansion of daycare centers, and after-school programs. The problem is that these pronatalist programs are very costly. And, as he points out, “The danger in placing much of the burden on employers … is that employers may avoid hiring women.” The added costs could also lead the firms to “become less efficient and less competitive in the global economy.”


The dilemma for Tokyo is not only how to fill the maternity wards again, but to figure out how to restructure the economy to make it more efficient and competitive, while at the same time, as Retherford points out, “restructuring society to be more marriage and child friendly without jeopardizing women’s hard-won gains in education and employment.” He admits “it won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap.”


And, it will be a dilemma facing more and more developing countries. Retherford notes, and developments in Asia bear him out, “It’s not just Japan. A lot more countries are in the same boat.” 




Minja Kim Choe, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center and a member of the affiliate graduate faculty in population studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, can be reached at (808) 944-7475 or via email at [email protected]


Andrew Mason, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center and a professor of economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, can be reached at (808) 944-7455 or via email at [email protected]


Robert Retherford, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center and coordinator of the Center’s program on Population and Health, can be reached at (808) 944-7403 or via email at [email protected]


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