[East Asia Forum] Very low fertility: An East Asian dilemma


April 23rd, 2013

Author: Peter McDonald, ANU


In the immediate post-war years, two prominent American demographers were attached to the MacArthur administration in Japan.


A Chinese woman holds a baby at a park in Beijing on 12  August 2005.  The one-child policy has curbed the population of the nation by about 300 million. (Photo: AAP)

One was Warren Thompson who, from the 1920s, had been an advocate of control over population growth as a necessary condition of economic development in developing countries. The other was Frank Lorimer, who was associated with the Princeton group of demographers which, from the late 1940s, began to argue that family planning was a necessary precursor to development in third world countries. Before this, according to demographic transition theory, control over fertility had been seen as a consequence of development. Fertility in Japan fell rapidly from around 3.7 births per woman in 1950 to around the replacement level of two births per woman in 1960 and development took off much as had been predicted.

This was also the beginning of the end of the colonial era and, one by one, developing countries were gaining independence. In the Cold War context, there was a battle for the hearts and minds of the developing countries. A series of books produced by American demographers in the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in Coale and Hoover’s 1958 book Population Growth and Economic Development in Low-Income Countries, argued the case for control of population growth through concerted family planning programs. Lower birth rates would concentrate the population in the workforce age group and allow scarce capital to be spent on investment rather than consumption. A lower birth rate also meant smaller families, which allowed both parents and the state to put a greater proportion of income towards children’s education One by one, developing countries in Asia adopted this approach. Early participants were the Asian tigers: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and in these countries economic development took off. Ironically, this capitalist idea was adopted in the communist countries, China and Vietnam, from the 1980s onwards.

The theory was that dissemination of control over fertility would lead to the result observed in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, that fertility would fall to the replacement level of two children per woman and then remain at that level. Even China’s one-child policy was designed to reduce fertility in China to about replacement level. However, in every Asian country where fertility has fallen to replacement level, it has continued to fall often to levels described as very low fertility, that is, under 1.5 births per woman. In Asia, very low fertility is found in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand and probably China.

It is widely considered that very low fertility results from the barriers faced by women, now better-educated and more career-oriented, to combine work with family responsibilities. This is particularly an issue in advanced East Asian economies because of the long hours of work that are expected from full-time workers and the difficulty of finding part-time work that is not low-level work. Employers are unwilling to change the current working conditions because they fear they will lose whatever competitive advantage they may have.

In the short term, very low fertility increases GDP per capita because both households and nations benefit from the reduced costs of having fewer children. In the longer term, however, the size of the labour force falls sharply, the total population size spirals downward and the population ages dramatically. These longer-term effects are already well under way in Japan. Socially, in the short term, the legitimate desires of young couples to have children are frustrated. For example, the desired family size of couples in Japan has never fallen below two. And in the longer term, society may adjust itself to the absence of children, making reversal highly problematic (the low fertility trap hypothesis). An absence of children and young workers may also generate a ‘demographic malaise’ — a deficit of incentive — as has been claimed in the Japan case.

What is to be done? Some argue that the effects of very low fertility can be offset by further increases in education — meaning the nation is smaller but smarter. Migration may also be a partial solution. Singapore, somewhat reluctantly, has followed this course. The inexorable mathematics of very low fertility mean that this is not a total solution — fertility must increase in the future. Aware of this, all governments in Asia with very low fertility — with the exception of China, for the time being — have expressed their desire to increase the level of fertility to a sustainable level. And most have already tried to do so with little success. Inappropriately, given their low tax regimes, they have looked to the Nordic countries and France for solutions. They need to be looking instead at the approaches that have kept fertility at relatively high levels in English-speaking countries, especially family-friendly working conditions.

Peter McDonald is Professor of Demography and Director of the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute at the Australian National University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly,‘Demographic Transition’.



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