The fall and fall of Asian fertility

The unwillingness of young Asians to start families echoes a worldwide rejection of the capacity to live independently.

Fertility rates in East Asia have fallen catastrophically since the early 1970s and are now the lowest in the world. In all parts of Asia, the total fertility rate (TFR) has fallen by half or more in the past 35 years. In Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, the TFR hovers between 1.0-1.3. For a population to replace itself, the TFR needs to be above 2.1. Thus, if these trends in fertility are not substantially reversed, the population of Asia will rapidly shrink as the continent heads into extinction. How did this happen?

Most commentators are inclined to blame the falling rate of TFR on the influence of modernity on women. Speaking in 1983, for example, Singapore’s then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, infamously remarked that educating women and bringing them into the workforce had undermined their more traditional role as mothers: ‘It is too late for us to reverse our policies… Our women will not stand for it. And anyway, they have already become too important a factor in the economy.’

Despite the growing prosperity of Asia and the introduction of women into the workforce, family life in Asia remains male-centred, with females playing a subordinate role. Working mothers are still expected to maintain all domestic activity and will perform ‘second shift’ domestic duties regardless of their profession or educational achievement. Korean women, for example, put in an average of four hours of domestic work per day compared with 17 minutes from men (1). That imbalance gets worse after children and, perhaps unsurprisingly, about two thirds of women in Korea and Japan exit the labour force immediately prior to the birth of their first child. Given these punishing expectations, it is understandable that many Asian women make the pragmatic choice to avoid becoming pregnant.

Other explanations for low Asian fertility focus on the high cost of living, childcare and education. Housing is incredibly expensive in most Asian cities and many young adults opt to live at home for extended periods, the majority into their late twenties, which can make finding and maintaining a romantic relationship somewhat awkward. The cost of educating children in Asia is typically also high. Public spending on education is relatively low and expenditure on private education can be substantial. In Japan, for example, about six per cent of family income is spent on children’s education, including cram schools (juku) or private tutors.

But while I don’t doubt that gender inequality and the high cost of living are having an impact, they don’t amount to an explanation for the massive collapse in the desire to have children. Asian women and men could campaign and demonstrate against restrictive gender roles and demand a more equitable approach to the balance of work and home. Even passive reactions don’t have to take the form of childlessness. Women could eschew the domestic work, and live in more grime, or hope that their husbands pick up the slack, and still have children. Similarly, Asian women (and men) could choose shared living, or a small living space, instead of staying at home with their parents. Housing is expensive in Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul, but it is also pricey in London, Paris and New York. All these cities have options for those who value their independence, and the opportunity for an intimate relationship, over saving money.

Falling fertility in Asia involves not just the rejection of motherhood but a broader rejection of intimacy and responsibility of many kinds. About two fifths to one third of women in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan are choosing not to marry. Increasing numbers are not even bothering to date. When I ask my students why this is, they shrug and talk about the hassle and expense, as was highlighted in a recent article. Children are expensive and they are also demanding, intrusive and may not turn out how you desire. Similarly, relationships are messy and difficult, with the ever-present possibility of disappointment. It is easier to live at home, hang out with friends and avoid intimate contact.

The problem in Asia is not modernity but rather the postmodern self-conscious denial of human agency and subjectivity. Young Asian men and women deny that they can be independent and deny that they can forge meaningful intimate personal relationships and so, instead, they accept the relative comforts of living with parents and the relative ease of being single. This denial of independence, intimacy and responsibility is a problem across the world and is bound up in a disregard for human agency typical of mainstream commentary on the environment, terrorism, economics and most other scientific and social issues. The impact in Asia may be more devastating because of the relatively sudden displacement of traditional Asian values without any broader narrative of what modern Asia is. Unlike America and Europe, Asia does not have a clear continental story, no obvious heroic past, unifying welfare state or pan-Asian vision that might blunt a turn towards the denial of the self.

Most proposals to fix Asia’s fertility problem focus on measures to facilitate child rearing and continued work for mothers, such as childcare leave, improved public schooling and increased childcare allowances. While these measures might be welcome and useful, improving the TFR in Asia will require more than technical incentives for having children. Asia needs to address the self-conscious denial among the populace of the ability, or even desire, to do what previous generations did relatively spontaneously: leaving home, getting into relationships and having children.

Stuart Derbyshire is associate professor in the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore (NUS) and A*STAR-NUS Clinical Imaging Research Centre.

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Footnotes and references

(1)  Japanese husbands put in an average of 25 minutes while American husbands put in 75 minutes. Source: East-West Center