The Vanishing Babies

29 August 2005

The Vanishing Babies

By Gwynne Dyer

The Japanese have known it was coming for years, but it still arrived sooner than anyone expected. The Japanese population has gone into absolute decline, and there will be at least 60,000 fewer Japanese at the end of this year than there were last January. In coming years, the decline will only accelerate.

It’s the same elsewhere in East Asia. Last week, the National Statistical Office in Seoul announced that South Korea’s total fertility rate (the number of babies the average woman has in a lifetime) has now plummeted to 1.16, even lower than Japan’s. China’s looks better at 1.7, but that is deceptive because there is a 15 percent surplus of boys over girls in the youngest population groups. All these countries’ populations are going to start falling steeply over the next generation.

The obvious explanation is that the East Asian countries, as they educate their people and turn into fully developed societies, are simply following the well-beaten path first travelled by the European countries. Italy, after all, has a total fertility rate of only 1.4, and Russia’s is down to 1.3: if these trends persist, there will 15 million fewer Italians by mid-century, and 40 million fewer Russians. But the obvious explanation is probably wrong, because not all developed countries have collapsing birth-rates.

In countries that have attract large numbers of immigrants, like the United States, Canada and Australia, the population will continue to grow or at least remain stable, but they are not relevant to the East Asian case. China, Japan or Korea could easily attract immigrants in large numbers, but they could not integrate them: their citizens simply cannot believe that a new arrival from the Philippines, Iran or Ethiopia could ever become a full member of the host society. However, some European countries are holding their populations without mass immigration.

The average fertility rate in France, to pick the most striking example, is 1.9. That is not quite enough in itself to keep the population stable over the long term, as the “replacement” rate is 2.2, but it is close enough to the replacement level that a relatively small flow of immigrants guarantees continued growth in the population. The French population, now close to 60 million, is forecast by the United Nations to be 63.5 million in 2025. So what are the French doing right?

France and Japan are both fully industrialised, highly urbanised, very well-educated countries with generous social services. They are both places where it is very expensive to have children. And both countries have experienced extreme fluctuations in their birth-rates in response to changing conditions.

Japan’s population almost doubled in the half-century after 1945, from 70 to 125 million. If current trends persist, it will be back down to 70 million before the end of this century. France’s population, by contrast, was already 40 million in 1840, but it then stopped growing for a hundred years, mainly because it remained a largely rural country and generations of farmers limited their children in order to keep the land together. Then the rapid post-war urbanisation of France ended the obsession with land, and in the past half-century the population has grown from 40 to 60 million. It is still growing, albeit slowly. Why?

The biggest difference between France and Japan is the status of women. Japanese women have a low status in the family, and despite the occasional female high-flyer they have an even lower status in the workforce (which they are generally expected to leave after they marry). As a result, they have effectively gone on strike: the average age of Japanese women at marriage is going up by several months each year, and the birth-rate has collapsed.

In France, by contrast, the traditional male-dominated family is all but dead — almost half of all French children are born “out of wedlock” — but informal new styles of family living give women more control over their lives while still providing secure environments for most children. And the main thing women do with their freedom is to stay in the workforce: 80 percent of French women between 24 and 49 work, the highest rate in the EU.

It’s not just about money; it’s about independence and satisfaction with one’s life. The French government helps its female citizens with free child-care (even for the very young), with subsidised vacation camps during the school holidays, and with tax breaks and family allowances for bigger families, but other countries do the same with much less impact on the birth-rate. The three-child family is still a normal phenomenon among the French middle class because French women do not feel they must choose between motherhood and a real life outside the house.

There are no immediately useful lessons in this for East Asian societies, since changing popular attitudes on gender roles take decades or generations. For the many countries that are still in the “demographic transition” and working to get their birth-rates down to 3.0 or even 4.0, it is bound to seem a distant, hypothetical problem. But there is a lesson for everybody here.

The lesson is this: if you don’t want your country’s population to fluctuate like a yo-yo on a fifty-year string, pay attention to women’s status inside and outside the family.


To shorten to725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“In countries …immigration”; and “There are…here”)