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East Asia grapples with an aging society

Emmy Sasipornkarn
March 13, 2023

The elderly population in East Asia is swelling as the birth rate continues to decline. The region now has the world's lowest fertility rate, raising fears of social and economic woes, especially for its youth.

Elderly people playing games at Tianzhushan Nursing Home in Shenyang, capital of northeast China s Liaoning Province
Last year, China's population dropped for the first time in six decadesImage: Xinhua/imago images

"I'm afraid to have children," Seha [surname withheld], a resident of Seoul, the South Korean capital, told DW. Although she feels it would bring her happiness, the 22-year-old believes that having children could stop her from pursuing her career.  

"I've seen many married women quit their jobs to take care of their children," she said, adding that her peers share her concerns.

The birth rate in South Korea has fallen steadily since 2015. Last year was the third in a row in which Asia's fourth-largest economy saw more deaths than births.

Additionally, the country recently broke its own record for the world's lowest fertility rate. The average number of children a woman in South Korea is expected to have fell to 0.78 in 2022, down from 0.81 a year earlier — far below the rate of 2.1 needed to maintain natural population growth. 

This is not a phenomenon unique to South Korea. Neighboring Japan has long been stymied by demographic problems, particularly with its fast-growing elderly population. The issue has such an impact that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida even said in January that the country is on the verge of social dysfunction.

The Chinese are also having fewer children, delaying childbirth, or not having kids at all. Last year, the country's population dropped for the first time in six decades. 

Cost of living deters prospective parents

East Asia now has the lowest fertility rate of any global region, at 1.2 births per woman, compared to 2.3 worldwide, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

The reasons putting women off having children are similar across the region: astronomical housing costs, the financial strain of raising children in a competitive society, and women increasingly prioritizing their careers. 

"You need at least €746,304 ($800,000) to buy an apartment in or near Seoul," Heedoh Roh, a public employee planning his wedding, told DW. "For now, we decided to rent a house."

How China deals with its aging population

Recent data from the 2021 Korea Housing Survey shows that an average worker can only buy property in the capital if they save their entire income for just over 14 years. 

Roh and his fiance plan to have kids, and as government employees they can enjoy parental leave for up to three years. Roh said the policy could be a "great motivation" for them to become parents in a country where many companies do not offer parental leave.

Fewer children raises fears of economic pain

Falling birth rates are not the only demographic-related predicament that East Asia is facing. In Japan, nearly a third of the population is made up of people aged 65 and older.

The country also has one of the world's highest life expectancies. In 2022, almost one in 1,500 Japanese people were at least 100 years old, compared with roughly one per 5,000 people globally. 

The shrinking number of youth will mean the country has a smaller workforce and won't be able to collect as much money in taxes, negatively impacting the economy, said Thang Leng, an associate professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore.

By 2050, one in three people in East Asia could be over the age of 65, according to the United Nations World Population Prospects.

China is facing an even more daunting challenge. With more than 1.4 billion people, its population is "aging on an unprecedented scale," said Sabrina Luk, an assistant professor of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

An increasingly elderly society, along with the "4-2-1" family structure (four grandparents, two parents and one child), which resulted from the one-child policy, means a heavier "financial and caregiver" burden placed on younger generations, Luk told DW.

China works under shadow of one-child policy

Experts fear China's one-child policy was lifted too late. After enforcing strict family planning policies for decades, allowing married couples to now have up to three children has not led to an increase in births. 

In fact, apart from an uptick in 2016, when the two-child policy was introduced, the number of babies born in China has declined by nearly half, from 17.86 million in 2016 down to just 9.56 million in 2022. 

South Korea's attempts at slowing the trend have had similar results. Over the past 16 years, the country has spent €195.6 billion ($210 billion) trying to boost birth rates, but has failed to turn the tide, President Yoon Suk Yeol said late last year.

Other than financial incentives, attempts to ease child care burdens for working parents require "genuine support from employers," said Thang, pointing out that many fathers are unwilling to take paternity leave over fears of disadvantages at work.

Meanwhile, as maternity leave in China lasts for at least 98 days, women with no children or just one child often face workplace discrimination. Some employers are wary of female workers being unavailable after giving birth, said Luk.

In Japan, retirees are retraining

Will foreign labor offer a solution?

While many countries in other regions have turned to foreign labor to supplement their shrinking workforces, East Asian nations have not yet fully embraced the idea.

In Japan, foreigners make up just 1.5% of the registered population — a figure much lower than in other industrialized nations. In Germany, for example, the ratio is about 15.8%. 

However, Thang expects to see more reliance on foreign workers in the future. South Korea is already adopting more migrant-friendly policies, with plans underway to set up an immigration agency. 

China, on the other hand, is not "a popular destination for immigrants," said Luk.

In 2020, even with foreign residents of Hong Kong and Macao combined, they only accounted for just 0.1% of the total workforce. 

To make matters worse, more people are moving out of China than into it. Since the UN started compiling statistics in 1950, China has had a net negative number of migrants. For now, governments in East Asia will continue to search for viable solutions to their shrinking populations. 

Edited by: Leah Carter