As world population grows, East Asia shrinks — Global Issues


  • Opinion by Yumeng Li (Washington DC)
  • Inter Press Service

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 fell to a record low of 0.72, world’s lowest. While the global population continues to grow overall, East Asia is grappling with a rapidly shrinking and aging population. It is a remarkable demographic polarization. What are the factors behind it? Amid bleak employment prospects, a demanding work environment, and rising costs of living and raising children amid economic instability, young people in East Asia are skeptical about marriage and children. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruptions to the labor market and the youth unemployment rate doubled in Asia and the Pacific. China is struggling with unprecedented youth unemployment of 21.3%including many graduates.

Japan’s real wages, adjusted for inflation have been declining for two years in a row, not keeping pace with rising living costs. Yet long hours and a phenomenon of overwork-related deaths known as karoshicontinue to exist. South Korea and China are the first and second most expensive countries in the world to raise children. Korean households spend an average of 17.5% of their monthly income on private tutoring, almost as much as the total amount spent on food and housing. But economic circumstances are only part of the story. Behind the declining fertility rates in East Asia lie concerns about deep gender inequality. Persistent traditional gender roles mean that East Asian women have the double burden responsibility for housework and child rearing, plus holding down a job in an intense culture of overwork. In addition, the workplace discriminates against mothers.Maternal intimidation” is widespread in Japan, where women see their bonuses cut, are pressured to resign, or are fired if they become pregnant. In Korea, 46% of unemployed women are married “career interruptedthat is, their professional life is disrupted by marriage, pregnancy, childcare or other family-related matters.

In China, women are discriminated against in the workplace based on marital status or parental statusEmployers often view women as “time bombs” who are likely to take multiple maternity leaves under the country’s pronatalist policies, and are therefore reluctant to hire or promote them. Meanwhile, fear-mongering, pronatalist rhetoric that raises the alarm about population decline is dangerous in the way it assigns women excessive 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 rate, saying it hindered “healthy relationships between men and women.” Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke at the National Women’s Congress about the need to “actively cultivate women’s fertility.” a new culture of marriage and having children.” Such rhetoric not only ignores the economic determinants of fertility, but also blames women and treats them as reproductive vessels, eroding their autonomy, exacerbating gender inequality, and creating coercive social pressures that undermine their reproductive choices and rights. Reproductive rights are not just a matter of managing population size; they are fundamental human rights. To build a sustainable and equitable future, governments must address the root economic and social causes of declining fertility while respecting women’s rights. Addressing these structural inequalities is crucial for healthier populations, whether or not the goal is to increase low fertility rates. We know from experience that trying to push people to have more children by offering subsidies, tax breaks or cash grants doesn’t work. A better way to improve the difficult economic conditions of childbearing in East Asia would be to create a more family friendly work culture including flexible working hours and working from home, government services that help mothers stay in or re-enter the labor market.

Men and women, birth, adoptive and surrogate parents, would all benefit from paid parental leave and other family-friendly workplace policies. To address gender inequality in the workplace, policymakers should clearly define and prohibit gender discrimination by employers in hiring, evaluation and benefit allocation. We need more specific enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and better mechanisms for filing complaints to uphold women’s rights in the workplace.

We must also combat stigma and discrimination single parents, non-traditional partnershipsAnd same-sex couples and thus have access to the same parental benefits and childcare infrastructure as traditional parents. We will not achieve 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 increasing fertility rates, we have an opportunity to adapt to those trends in a fair and equitable way.

Governments in East Asia and elsewhere in the world are aware that pronatalist campaigns undermine women’s autonomy and that this is a trap, and they have a responsibility to implement rights-based policies that respect this autonomy.

Yumeng Li is a graduate student at Duke University and a Stanback Population Research Fellow at the Population Institute, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to reproductive health and rights.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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