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.