Demographics are a problem in many countries. Japan’s politicians are extremely worried by the country’s aging population and very low birth rates are worrying politicians, 1.37 births per woman was recorded in 2010. The Japanese government plans to offer a child allowance and other “incentives” for families to have children, but critics claim that the incentive package is unaffordable and a simplistic solution to a difficult and complex problem. Other Asian countries, such as South Korea, are watching Japan’s efforts to deal with this problem with interest, since the problem also affects many of them.
The reasons for Japan’s low birthrate are many and varied, and this is why simplistic solutions will not work. The way that fertility rates are calculated means that in a developed country, like Japan, 2.1 births per woman is the replacement rate for the population, that is, for a balance between births and deaths. Japan’s birthrate is 1.4 births per woman, one of the lowest in the World, and its population is officially declining.
Like many countries, Japan’s economy grew very fast in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and Japan had an increasing birthrate in the years immediately after the Second World War. The ‘Baby Boomers’, children born in the years following the Second World War are now at, or reaching retirement age. Improvements in medicine and health care mean that people are living longer than they used to do. Thus, the generation before the baby boomers is living much longer and so will the Baby Boomers. However, the Baby boomer generation is not the result of normal conditions, and when they die out it is likely that populations will be better balanced. They were the first generation to have choice over their fertility, and the first where so many career opportunities opened to women. Many baby boomers chose not to have children and many baby boomer women chose not to marry at all.
Japanese women are choosing to marry much later than they once did. They also have fewer children, or choose not to have children at all. Commentators also say that, in many cases, women in Japanese society must choose between a career and children, a difficult choice if you have a responsible position. Childcare is expensive and difficult to find. Schooling is expensive. There is also an extreme ‘long hours’ culture in Japanese businesses, especially as you get further up the career ladder, some employees regularly arrive home from work at midnight, having left very early in the morning. Some women cite social attitudes as reasons to remain unmarried and childless, and one cannot blame them when the head of the population study in Japan advises women “to stay home and breed”.
Some commentators believe that a lower population is a bad thing affecting Japan’s power and prestige in the World, undermining its social security and medical systems, as well as adversely affecting Japan’s economy. Others believe that although the declining population will have those effects on Japan, positive effects may counter-balance them, such as less energy consumption by fewer people and that a less crowded Japan might be a good thing, fewer people need fewer resources.
Most European countries are suffering declining birthrates. France is the only country to have recovered a little from a very low birthrate. France suffered declining birthrates for more than a century. The French government took measures in a comprehensive package designed to encourage women to have children and to make mothers’ lives simpler. French businesses also cater for families offering important discounts. Childcare, money, facilities, employment, and all areas of French life are orientated towards families and these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. France’ birthrate increased from one of the lowest in Europe, low of 1.3 births per woman to the second highest in Europe, at 1.94 births per woman, barely exceeded by Ireland at 1.99 (BPW). Many European countries are looking at the French model. Other Asian countries are also looking towards France for the solution their perceived population decline problem. However, Social attitudes in France towards families and family life are very different to those in most other countries. It is no use governments introducing monetary incentives alone, as one French Mother said, “people don’t stop having children because of money concerns”.
Whether declining populations are really such a problem, remains to be seen. The baby boomers all over the World have skewed demographics ever since their birth and they will skew the figures, until forty or fifty years’ time, when they fall out of the equation. Even Japanese ‘experts’ are divided on whether a declining population is a good or bad thing in the long run. It may be that declining populations may prove a good thing for many countries, including Japan. Perhaps slowing population growth will enable humans to live within the planet’s resources. In nature, when a species gets too populous there are natural curbs, disease, predators, habitat loss, et cetera. Humans have few natural curbs on our breeding process; perhaps losing the desire to have children is our natural curb.
Growing populations are now the exception, rather than the rule; most countries either have a stable or declining population. Growing and rapidly growing populations are mainly features of developing countries. A growing population fuels rapid economic growth, perhaps this is the next phase in the cycle for developed countries. The financial crisis has seen many developed countries’ economies contract rapidly and it maybe that the economic model of constant economic growth is unrealistic and unsustainable. Smaller populations supporting better leaner economies may be the next phase in developed countries. Perhaps governments need to see declining populations in from a different standpoint rather than always seeing it as a negative. Political power and influence in the World cannot decline to any significant degree, when most countries’ populations are declining or remaining stable.