Promoting marriage is likely the most successful way to promote more births in Asia, according to recent research by Mengni Chen, a research scientist at the University of Cologne in Germany and University of Louvain in Belgium, and Paul Yip, the chair professor (population health) at the University of Hong Kong.

2020 estimates continue to place the total fertility rate at less than one child per woman in most high-income Asian societies, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Chronic low fertility is concerning because it significantly affects the economy, social welfare system, and the health care system.  It likely also affects societal happiness and sense of purpose when people do not feel supported to have a stable family and bring up children.

2020 was a landmark year for demography.  In Hong Kong it is likely that the annual number of deaths will exceed that of births for the first time in the country’s history.  Nearby Taiwan also had 10,246 more deaths than births. In South Korea births were down 10.6 per cent from 2019.  I could go on.

Chen and Yip put forward a concept of “fertility elasticity”. They describe it as being originally an economic concept. For example, price elasticity of demand refers to the percentage change in demand when there is a one per cent change in the price of a commodity.

Applying the concept to fertility research, their results suggest promoting marriage among young people is the most effective measure. In all five countries studied, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, the fertility elasticity to the marriage rate of women aged 25-29 was the largest. For every 1 per cent increase in the marriage rate of this group, the total fertility rate will increase by about 0.3 per cent in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, and about 0.24 per cent in South Korea.

While many governments have tried adopting family-friendly policies to raise the fertility rate, including extending parental leave, providing flexible working hours, and offering a baby bonus, the effect of these policies has been modest on their own according to Chen and Yip.

Thus they concluded that, if governments can remove the barriers to marriage and raise the marriage rate, there would be a significant increase in total fertility rates, and this would likely be the most effective measure.

The findings also indicate that, if family policies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore can encourage first births, and policies in South Korea can encourage second births, there may be a noticeable impact on the total fertility rate. 

Chen and Yip advise in the South China Morning Post:

“A significant reversal in the fertility rate in these societies is unlikely without effective family policies. They should be a sustained, integrated and diverse policy portfolio which satisfies the different needs of families, creates a family-friendly working environment and targets the most influential groups.

Meanwhile, an increase in productivity through automation and migration could also help mitigate the challenges arising from low fertility.”

Other studies have found that a societal shift to extended education for young people and an emphasis on having a “career” significantly impacts fertility rates.  If people feel more celebrated in the workplace than in the home, it is no wonder they focus on career over marriage and having children. Young people now leave marriage and parenthood until much later in life than the generations that came before them — if at all. It makes sense that moving some of our focus back to valuing marriage, family and the home would help to reverse years of chronically low fertility. 

While there are of course many benefits to having more choices, especially for women, it is a mistake to emphasis “career” to the extent that parents feel completely undervalued when they are working to create a successful home and bring up the next generation of society well.  After all, home is a key component of happiness for most of us and the true centre of our lives.  It is not the case that we are all happier spending our time making widgets, or whatever it is we do at work. And the next generation is important and worthy of our time.

This research suggests that encouraging society to value marriage and family could be an effective measure to help to turn around chronically low fertility in Asian countries. And probably the world.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...