Why Has Taiwan's Birthrate Dropped So Low?

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Chiang Ying-ying / AP

A family shops in a Taipei market on Feb. 21, 2009

At a community center in Taipei, a church bulletin board displays family pictures with children showing off drawings of pink lotus flowers, lush trees, ponds and imaginary bears from a drawing contest at the Botanical Gardens. Catherine Wu, a newcomer to the church, noticed something unusual on the board that any outsider might overlook: each family had two or more children. "Are people encouraged to have children around here?" she asked.

In many societies, photos of four-member families wouldn't be much to stop and take notice of. But as of this year, Taiwan has the lowest birthrate in the world, with just one baby born per woman. According to the Population Reference Bureau's 2009 annual report, Taiwan has now surpassed both Macau and Hong Kong, which have held the lowest spots on the world chart for the past five years.

"This is a tragic society," Taiwan's Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang proclaimed in a Nov. 28 speech at the National Science and Technology Museum. He warned that if the island continues on this track, the population would experience a future labor shortage and that the next generation of children would have significant difficulty covering the health costs of their aging parents. That intense financial pressure, he said, could raise the future suicide rate. The Education Minister, in a separate statement, predicted that one-third of Taiwan's colleges will close in just 12 years if the trend continues.

In a society where the cost of living is high, the notion that kids are an unwelcome burden — taboo in many cultures — has become an accepted idea. Take the title of a recent panel discussion put on by Taiwan's Human Social Sciences Foundation: 'Having Children! Does It Hurt That Much?' "The hurt," explains the foundation's president, professor Liu Pei-yi, "refers to financial loss." In a research poll administered by Kun Shan University in 2007, students interviewed 100 residents of Taiwan between the ages of 20 and 40 about their family plans. One-third didn't plan to have any children for fear of losing two precious things: money and freedom.

Balancing work and family life has proven to be a challenge for both men and women in Taiwan. According to the Swiss-based International Institute of Management Development, Taiwanese work some of the longest hours in the world, averaging nearly 44 hours a week, and Taiwan's women are very career-oriented. "Most women are afraid of losing their jobs" by taking time out to have a child, says Liu. He says Taiwan should follow the lead of European countries like Germany, where women are entitled to up to three years of maternity leave by law. Taiwan has been making progress in this area; in 2002, the government passed a law requiring companies to allow their employees two-year parental leaves without pay. This year, a policy came out that enables parents to take six months of parental leave while receiving 60% of their salary. But many say these changes only look good on paper, as most bosses discourage people from taking the time off.

Underneath these logistical issues, however, may be a fundamental shift in values. Two-thirds of working women in Taiwan are university-educated, and fewer of them are jumping into tying the knot early. "I'm not pursuing marriage," says Hsu Yu-hua, a 30-something accountant in Taipei. "Not with today's divorce rate [38% in Taiwan]. I'm financially independent, and it's more convenient to be single." Only a third of Taiwan's women are married by age 30, in contrast to 20 years ago, when the average age for marriage for women was 26. Many more men have also been marrying women from other Asian countries like China and Vietnam, both countries where women are statistically inclined to have more children. China, even with the government's one-child policy, still has a birthrate of 1.6, compared with Taiwan's 1.0 (Vietnam's is 2.1). Today, 1 in 8 babies in Taiwan is born to a non-Taiwanese mother.

The chief of Taiwan's Child Welfare Bureau, Chen Kung-huang, says lowering housing prices for families with children and other related goals — like helping singles date and mate — are all items on the government's to-do list to try to boost the number of babies being born in Taiwan's delivery rooms. But underlying factors behind the low birthrate may be beyond the grasp of government policy. When asked if she wanted to have children, happily married broadcast journalist Huang Shih-han replied, "I like reading and, well, you can't read if there are children wailing." Why does she think Taiwan's birthrate is so low? "I think our generation is more selfish," she says. "When you have children, you have to sacrifice a lot, and I don't want to do that."