A Childless Future: East Asia’s Fertility Crisis

Written by: Wenzhe Teng

What do China, Japan, and South Korea have in common? Geographically, they are neighboring countries in East Asia. Culturally, their citizens share many common traditions; South Korea and China even have the same date for the Spring Festival, which is their New Year. Economically, the three countries were powerhouses known for their strong manufacturing industry. But, in the 21st century, a new commonality emerged: all three countries had a concerningly low fertility rate. 

For low-mortality populations such as East Asians, the replacement fertility rate is 2.1. This means that every eligible female needed to have 2.1 children on average to maintain the same population over generations. However, Japan’s fertility rate was at 1.36 in 2020 and has remained this low for twenty years. Similarly, China’s fertility rate decreased to 1.3 in 2020 after remaining at 1.6 for several years. South Korea has the worst number among the three nations, with a fertility rate of 0.84 in 2020. In fact, this number was the lowest in the world.

Such low fertility rates may soon result in economic decline, because the number of children will not be enough to replace their parents’ generation, who currently are manufacturing Japanese cars, Korean chips, and all sorts of products made in China. Furthermore, remote schools and other child care facilities will close due to the lack of children, which has already happened in South Korea. The general population will become older at an increasingly rapid rate, and a reduced tax base of the younger population will struggle to support the previous generations. 

Considering today’s numbers, it is very hard to imagine the much higher fertility rates of these three countries in the past. Sixty years ago, Japan’s fertility rate was at a relatively healthy and steady 2, while China and South Korea’s rate were both at a burgeoning 6

So what has happened since 1960? Why do young Asian couples not want to have as many children as their parents or grandparents did? There are three major factors: the increased cost of living, the competitive and stressful environment, and an oppressive patriarchal tradition,  all of which have contributed to the rapid decline in fertility rates in East Asia. 

Firstly, all three countries have experienced an economic boom during the last sixty years. Japan’s economic miracle from the 1950s to 1990s, South Korea’s “Hanjiang miracle” from the 1960s to 2000s, and China’s economic reform from 1978 to the present day followed a similar pattern, as these impoverished countries started in the rudimentary manufacturing industry before transforming into high-tech manufacturing powerhouses. The success of this model is evident: Japan and South Korea are developed countries now, while China has officially eradicated extreme poverty. Economic development generally improves people’s living standards, but living in an advanced and prosperous society does not make people want to have more children. In fact, studies have consistently shown that high living standards are connected with low fertility rates, not only in East Asia but worldwide. In a poor society, people want to have children for economic reasons, since one more child means an additional safety net or income for the family in the future. However, people in developed countries do not conflate their children with potential economic value; instead, having children is one of the many achievements people sought, along with careers and hobbies. The young generation of Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese citizens are not eager to have children or even start a family, since they can support their own lives financially and have numerous other life goals to pursue. 

While young people enjoy high living standards, living in an East Asian society is not easy or relaxed. On the contrary, the three countries all embrace free-market capitalism (albeit different versions), leading to a highly competitive and stressful environment for many young people. Starting from childhood, East Asians work very hard to prepare for some of the world’s most competitive tests. In order to get into a good university in South Korea, students spend numerous hours studying, attending both regular school and hagwons (after class prep school). One influential survey indicates that 53% of high school students do not get enough sleep and 90% of them have less than 2 hours of free time on weekdays. China was not too far behind, as high school students regularly study from 7 AM to 9 PM for the Gaokao (College entrance exam). Schools and additional tutoring are expensive and require significant effort from parents themselves, but if the parents do not spend on their children, their children will most likely fall behind and have a far less promising future. Due to the competitive education system, having and raising children becomes an economic burden for the parents, leading to the aforementioned decline in fertility rates.

In addition to education, the high costs of living are another stressful factor. East Asian countries have very high housing prices, and aspiring young people struggle to buy a house in major cities. The competitive job market, as well as conventional work ethics, keep the wage low and prevent young people from earning a sufficient income to buy an overpriced home. In South Korea’s current housing bubble, “Koreans pour a greater share of their household assets into real estate (75 percent) than their international peers”, causing anxiety among the population. Factors like these led a social phenomenon to emerge in Japan in the 1990s, known as Hikikomori, wherein young people ( half a million as of 2019) reject the stressful working environment and depend on their parents for life. They become modern-day hermits and monks; many of them never communicate with other people and some do not even leave their room. In China, statisticians have indicated a strong connection between high housing prices and low fertility rates.

Living in a highly competitive capitalist society is difficult, but it does liberate one from the traditional constraints of family. Thanks to economic development, the once omnipotent traditional family can no longer bind their children, as millions of young people practice free will over their marital choice. Ironically, the liberation from tradition also reduces the fertility rate. East Asian tradition emphasizes the importance of marriage and passing down the family name. Filial piety is the most important virtue in Confucianism, which has deep cultural influence in all three East Asian countries. As Mencius (the second most celebrated Confucian scholar after Confucius himself) once said, “There are three ways to be unfilial; having no sons is the worst.” Moreover, the old societal patriarchy gave parents the authority to arrange children’s marriage and dictated that women’s most essential task was to reproduce. As young people rightfully abandon these old traditions, they reject the notion that one must have children. Parents who want to have grandchildren are also unable to mandate their children to marry and have kids. In China, major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where the patriarchy is less influential, have very low fertility rates, while more traditional areas like Shandong and Guangdong province continue to have relatively high fertility rates despite their economic development. In Japan, one prevailing cultural aspect to this day has been that married women should not work. Young females are able to choose between marriage and a career, and many choose the latter. South Korean feminists also took a step forward, starting a “No Marriage” or “Womb Protest” movement against the culture of sexual harassment.

In response to the looming crisis of low fertility, leaders of the three nations have introduced various policies aiming to bolster the fertility rate. Financial incentives and paid maternity leave have been introduced to support children-bearing mothers, while price control for housing and regulation on education have also been introduced to reduce the anxiety-inducing competitiveness. In 2015, China ended its controversial one-child policy, and it now allows couples to have three children

Despite the good intentions, the effectiveness of those policies remains pessimistically uncertain. Alternative life goals provided by high living standards, a competitive environment, and a rejection towards patriarchal values, are systemic issues. Without radical reconfiguration of the system, East Asia may suffer a major decline in population and economy in the near future.