Asia's fertility rates are falling with major implications for governments that will have to implement new programs to deal with aging populations, and adapt education, labor and migration policies.
Asia's gender balance is skewed because there is a preference for boys
In the 1950s, Asia's population stood at 1.5 billion. By the 1980s, it had risen to 2.5 billion and it now stands at 4.2 billion.
However, fertility rates in certain key countries in Asia are currently in decline. The long-term process began in the early 1970s when some governments adopted family planning policies to counteract the fast-growing populations that had emerged after the Second World War.
The Chinese government has introduced schemes to promote female children
East Asian economies such as Japan, South Korea and China have for some time seen total fertility rates (TFR) fall to very low levels. To maintain a population the TFR is set at 2.1 babies per woman.
Impact on region's economies
A recent conference held in Bangkok by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) discussed the implications of declining fertility rates in the region. The panelists especially looked at the impact of aging populations and the declining numbers of youth on the economy.
Noriko Tsuya is a professor of economics at Japan’s Keio University pointed out that it was very difficult to reverse fertility rates. "Since early 2000, the TFT in Japan is about 1.3 children per woman. If this goes on, Japan's population will decline in about 50 years by at least one third."
Aging populations across Asia are proving a difficult challenge
Meanwhile, China’s one-child policy and a preference for male children, has led to millions of female fetuses being aborted. There are now over 34 million more men than women, which is creating a whole set of problems. Men cannot always find wives with whom later to have children.
However, some policies have now been put in place to promote female children in China.
"There is one government-driven program called 'Care of Girls'", explained Professor Qiao Xiaochun from the Institute of Population Research at Peking University. "They give girls support to go to school and they also give a lot of work to young girls. This kind of program has been implemented for more than 10 years."
He also said that the government had started clamping down on practices where women undergo ultrasound scans to determine the sex of the unborn child and have an abortion if it is a girl.
Surprising decline in Thailand
Thailand and Singapore have also seen a fall in fertility rates, which came as a surprise, said Gavin Jones from the National University of Singapore. He said this could "raise some issues later as the dynamism within the labor force is often considered to come from younger workers."
On the other hand, Indonesia appeared to be handling a declining fertility rate quite well, by investing in the large young population and spending heavily on education.
Demographic changes in Asia mean that governments will have to examine a whole range of issues, from education, labor force participation and urbanization to health and care programs for the aged, as well as the politically-sensitive issue of migration.
Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Anne Thomas