Taiwan grapples with soaring concerns as declining birth rate brings unprecedented consequences

The persistent decline in Taiwan’s birth rate carries profound implications for various aspects of the country.

In the periphery of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, specifically in Muzha, the depiction of an unfinished nativity scene at a local Catholic church becomes a poignant reflection of Taiwan’s intricate demographic puzzle where there is a notable shortage of newborns. Against this backdrop, neighbouring pet-grooming establishments tell a tale of shifting household dynamics, where the count of registered cats and dogs surpasses that of children under ten. As Taiwan approaches its eighth presidential election slated for January 13, 2024, the nation grapples with the stark reality of a historic low in annual births, which is a huge societal challenge.

The three presidential candidates include Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih representing the historically influential Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). They find themselves at the intersection of pressing concerns, prominently among them is Taiwan’s dwindling fertility rate. Each candidate recognises the gravity of the declining birth rate issue, a concern underscored by three consecutive years where deaths surpassed births in Taiwan. The only factor preventing an actual population decline is immigration.

Ko, a charismatic populist resonating with disenchanted youth, recently took the spotlight by orchestrating a press conference on November 7, aimed at exploring innovative responses to the decline in birth rates in the country. His focus on addressing the declining birth rate showcased a ten-point plan, marked by a unique pregnancy bonus. In a strategic move, Ko criticized his rivals, particularly Hou Yu-ih’s proposed third-child bonus, and aimed at Vice President Lai Ching-te’s track record on policies related to the demographic challenge.

In response, Lai’s team strategically shifted the focus to Ko’s controversial history of statements, particularly those regarded as misogynistic. Phrases like “unmarried women are like disabled parking spaces” and the assertion that unmarried women are causing instability and a national security crisis became focal points, underscoring the gravity of the issue and the varying approaches of the candidates.

Despite the nuanced differences in the details of their proposals—varying amounts of monetary incentives and conditions under which they are provided—the candidates collectively acknowledge the severity of Taiwan’s demographic challenge. Their policies, at their core, revolve around injecting financial incentives into the system to encourage childbirth and mitigate the impact of the declining birthrate. As Taiwan stands at this demographic crossroads, the election outcomes are poised to shape not only the political landscape but also the trajectory of the island’s population dynamics.

 

Why is the decreasing birth rate a national security issue?

The longstanding fertility crisis in Taiwan has raised considerable concerns, with early population planning targets set by the then-dominant KMT proving to be a cautionary tale of unintended consequences. In the 1980s, these targets were not only met but exceeded, leading to a persistent drop in the fertility rate below replacement level since 1983.

Recognized as a matter of national security in Taiwan’s inaugural national security report in 2006, the issue has consistently made headlines both domestically and internationally. It is linked to various adverse economic and social indicators, including the escalating burden of national debt per capita, diminishing domestic demand, a shrinking labour supply, and the challenges associated with caring for an ageing population in a super-aged society.

The impact is evident in Taiwan’s military, where there is a dwindling pool of young men who are eligible for service, particularly in the air force.

While financial pressures, notably housing costs, are often cited by young women in Taiwan as reasons for opting for pets over having children, the issue of housing is acknowledged as a significant concern. Presidential candidates have made promises to address housing challenges for couples with children.

However, in a society where marriage is normatively linked to having children, being married becomes a prerequisite for accessing existing benefits. The fertility rate for married couples remains relatively high, with two children being the norm. The critical question shifts from why women aren’t having children to why women aren’t getting married

In Taiwan, akin to much of East Asia, the trend of marriage avoidance is notable. In 2021, only 50% of young Taiwanese between ages 25 and 34 were married. Among the unmarried cohort, 70% of men expressed a desire to marry in the future, while a majority of unmarried women did not share the same intention. Additionally, more unmarried men expressed a desire to eventually have children compared to unmarried women.

The falling birth rate, therefore, appears to encompass factors beyond financial pressures, suggesting a more complex societal shift influencing decisions around marriage and family planning.

 

Impact

The persistent decline in Taiwan’s birth rate carries profound implications for various aspects of the country. Economically, the ageing population resulting from this demographic shift places significant pressure on healthcare resources, creating a substantial economic burden.

A direct consequence of the low birth rate is a shortage in the labour force, posing challenges to economic growth and innovation. Industries may struggle to find skilled workers, impacting technological advancements and overall productivity. This can affect Taiwan’s competitiveness on the global stage.

The decline in the number of young men eligible for military service has implications for national defence. The declining birth rate, coupled with the trend of marriage avoidance, contributes to shifting family structures, impacting societal norms and expectations.

In summary, Taiwan’s falling birth rate has far-reaching consequences across economic, labour force, military, and social dimensions. Comprehensive policies are needed to address these challenges, considering both incentivizing childbirth and understanding the broader societal factors influencing family planning and demographic trends.