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While Global Population is Rising, East Asia is Shrinking

On 15 November 2022, the world’s population reached an estimated 8.0 billion people, a milestone in human development. This unprecedented growth, according to the UN, is due to the gradual increase in human lifespan owing to improvements in public health, nutrition, personal hygiene and medicine. It is also the result of high and persistent levels of fertility in some countries. Meanwhile, the UN will be commemorating World Population Day on July 11.

WASHINGTON DC, Jul 9 2024 (IPS) - Across East Asia, birthrates are plummeting. Japan’s has been falling for eight straight years and recently hit a record low of 1.2 children per woman, the lowest since record keeping began in 1899.

For reference, a total fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to maintain a stable population. China’s total fertility rate is now approaching 1.0. South Korea’s plummeted in 2023 to a record low of 0.72, the worlds’ lowest.

While global population continues to grow overall, East Asia is facing a rapidly shrinking and aging population. It’s a remarkable demographic polarization. What are the factors behind it?

Amid bleak employment prospects, demanding work environment, and rising costs of living and childrearing in the backdrop of economic instability, young people in East Asia are skeptical about marriage and children.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered massive labor market disruptions and doubled the unemployment rate among youth in Asia and the Pacific. China faces unprecedented youth unemployment of 21.3%, including many college graduates.

Japan’s inflation-adjusted real wages have been declining for two straight years, and not keeping pace with rising living expenses. Yet long working hours and a phenomenon of overwork-related deaths, known as karoshi, persist.

South Korea and China are the first and second most expensive countries in the world to raise children. Korean households spending an average of 17.5% of their monthly income on private tutoring, close to the total amount spent on food and housing.

But economic conditions are just part of the story. Behind East Asia’s falling fertility rates are concerns over deep gender inequality. Persistent traditional gender roles make East Asian women bear the double burden responsibility for housework and childrearing plus holding down a job in an intense overwork culture.

On top of this, workplace discriminates against mothers. “Maternal harassment” is prevalent in Japan, with women having bonuses reduced, pressured to resign, or fired when they become pregnant. In Korea, 46% of unemployed married women are “career-interrupted,” i.e. their professional lives are disrupted by marriage, pregnancy, childcare, or other family-related matters.

In China women face job discrimination based on marital or parental status. Employers often view women as “time bombs” likely to take multiple maternity leaves with the nation’s pronatalist policies, and so are reluctant to hire or promote them.

Meanwhile fear-mongering, pronatalist rhetoric that raises the alarm about population decline is dangerous in how it assigns women outsized responsibilities or “duties” to bear children, and even blames women’s rights movements.

On the stump South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol blamed feminism for the country’s low fertility fate because it prevented “healthy relationships between men and women.” Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke before the National Women’s Congress of the need to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing.”

Such rhetoric not only ignores the economic determinants of fertility, it blames women and treats them as reproductive vessels, infringing on their autonomy, intensifying gender inequality, and exerting coercive social pressure that undermines their reproductive choices and rights.

Reproductive rights aren’t just a matter of managing population size; they are fundamental human rights. To build a sustainable and just future, governments need to address the deeper economic and social causes of declining fertility while respecting women’s rights. Combating these structural inequities is critical for a healthier population, regardless of whether the goal is to raise low fertility rates.

We know from experience that trying to push people into having more children by offering subsidies, tax breaks, or cash allowances doesn’t work. A better way to start ameliorating the tough economics of having children in East Asia would be to develop a more family-friendly work culture including flexible hours and working at home, government services that help mothers stay in or re-enter the workforce.

Men and women, birth, adoptive, and surrogate parents alike, would all benefit from paid parental leave and other family-friendly workplace policies.

To tackle gender inequity at work, policymakers should clearly define and prohibit gender discrimination by employers in recruiting, evaluation, and assigning benefits. We need more specific enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and better mechanisms for bringing complaints to uphold the rights women in the workplace.

We also need to combat stigma and discrimination against single parents, non-traditional partnerships, and same-sex couples and so they can access the same parental benefits and child care infrastructure as traditional parents.

We won’t get to a more sustainable and equitable future without respecting women’s rights and addressing structural economic and social injustices. Rather than trying to reverse demographic trends by raising fertility rates, we have a window of opportunity to adapt to those trends fairly and equitably.

Recognizing the pitfalls of pronatalist campaigns that erode women’s autonomy, governments in East Asia and everywhere have a responsibility to adopt rights-based policies that respect it.

Yumeng Li is an undergraduate at Duke University and a Stanback Population Research Fellow at the Population Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that supports reproductive health and rights.

IPS UN Bureau


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