There are many rankings that Taiwan would like to be at the top of, but having the lowest average number of births in the world is not one of them. Taiwan’s Health Minister Yuang Chih-Liang recently announced that the average birth rate for a Taiwanese woman in 2008 was 1.05 children. At this rate, Taiwan will become a “super-aged” society by 2024. With so few people working and paying into the system, this could seriously affect Taiwan’s economic and social stability.
Sharp decline in number of births
According to Global View Magazine, Taiwan’s total population will start to decline in 2024 when its growth rate will reach zero. This is a sharp and alarming drop from 1951 when the average Taiwanese female between the ages of 15 and 49 gave birth to seven children. Currently, Taiwan’s birthrate is half that of the United States and many other developed countries.
In 2008, the percentage of senior citizens over 65 in Taiwan’s total population was 10.4, meaning one elderly person per every ten non-elderly. By 2024, Taiwan’s senior citizens are expected to account for 19.3 percent of the total population, meaning one elderly person among every five non-elderly. This would make Taiwan a “super-aged” society as defined by the United Nations.
Chen Wei-chao, the former president of National Taiwan University, warned ten years ago that the declining birth rate would force the shutdown of colleges. Out of Taiwan’s current 164 universities and colleges, an estimated 60 could close by 2021 unless the low birth rate can be reversed.
Less workers could mean a financial “black hole”
According to Global Views Magazine, the declining birth rate can be attributed to several factors, chief among them – the decline in the total married population, and the decision of many to delay marriage. As Taiwan’s workforce is comprised of more educated women, more women are enjoying their single status longer. Compounded with that problem is the added stress of work in the race against each person’s own fertility clock. Many women stay single, not wanting the added financial burden of raising children. No longer are Taiwanese women bound by traditional family values of continuing the family tree or raising children to help care for their elderly parents.
With Taiwan’s fertility rate so low, the magazine predicts Taiwan could lose its competitive edge, leading to a GDP and market decline. This would mean a decrease in tax revenue, and an increase in retirement pension expenditure, in essence, a financial “black hole.” Young adults would be over burdened to support an elderly population.
In 1950, the magazine noted that there were 22.7 working adults between the ages of 15 and 64 supporting one elderly person. That figure dropped to 6.9 workers to support one elderly person in 2008. It will be further reduced to 1.4 workers to support elderly person by 2056.
Educating women on their fertility
Dr. Tzeng Chii-ruey, who successfully cultivated Taiwan’s first test tube baby in 1986, said solving the infertility problem is indeed a very good entry point to increase the birth rate and suggested subsidizing fertility treatments. He said if the government had an annual budget funding of NT$500 million (US$15.4 million) to subsidize infertility, this could mean another ten thousands test tube babies. So far, there are 100,000 test tube babies living in Taiwan.
Interviewed for Taiwan Panoroma, Liu Chi-hong, one of Taiwan’s best known fertility experts says that education could go a long way towards increasing a woman’s reproductive life. Most women hear stories of celebrities having babies well into their forties and some into their fifties, but what is often not said is how much these individuals have spent on fertility treatment. In many cases, “they weren’t using their own eggs,” according to Liu. These women are the exception to the norm.
Besides, the huge cost of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) – US$620 per artificial insemination attempt and US$3,000 per in-vitro fertilization – makes it difficult for most middle-class people to repeat the procedure again and again. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 42-year-old woman receiving IVF treatment only has a 15 percent chance of getting pregnant. And because their eggs are of such poor quality, there is only a 50 percent chance that the pregnancies will result in a live birth.
Fertility clinics are filled with women who look great on the outside, but their internal clock is somehow harder to manipulate. At 47, success at getting pregnant falls to 1.1 percent and success at giving birth drops to 0 percent.
Other possible solutions
Another approach to solve the low birth rate issue is to increase Taiwan’s current fertility incentives, which allows eight weeks of maternity leave, maternity benefits, childcare subsidies, childcare leave and childcare allowance. For Taiwan’s workers to take care of their children under three, either parent could apply for maternity leave, or leave without pay, for at least six months in principle, but with a cumulative limit of two years. This is a national law which went into effect recently. Already, the number of workers who took maternity leave from January to August 2008 has increased by 84 percent over 2007.
Professor Lin Jyh-horng of Tamkang University pointed out it is not easy to increase Taiwan’s birth rate in the short term, but the government can follow the example of New Zealand and Singapore which countered their declining populations by adopting more liberal immigration policies. Although allowing more skilled immigrants into Taiwan might be a harder sell to conservative-minded Taiwan.
Another solution to counter the decline is to delay the retirement age. Lin suggested the government should learn from the British practice and delay the retirement age as a way of reducing the government deficit. He said the retirement age of white collar workers could be shifted from the current 65 to 75, and that of blue collar workers from 60 to 65.
In seeking the solution, Professor Kao Cheng-shu of Tunghai University said the declining birth rate is a “quiet revolution.” Once you notice the crisis, it is already too late. He urged the government, in cooperation with all walks of life, to solve this “big issue of the century,” so that the normal operation of the society can continue.