Japan was the first in the region to experience birth rates below population-replacement level, dipping below two children per woman in the late 1970s.
While Japan’s current fertility rate is higher than those of other societies in East Asia such as Singapore and Hong Kong, its decades of low fertility mean that it is the most rapidly ageing population in the region and is facing severe labour shortages.
The Japanese government reported that fewer babies were born in 2018 than in any year since 1899, the first year that records were kept. Other East Asian societies look to be on track to follow in Japan’s footsteps.
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There are two solutions to population decline: increase immigrant flows or raise the birth rate. East Asian societies show mixed records on the former. Japan has wrestled with debates over immigration for decades and only recently started to adapt its policies to incorporate more foreigners into the labour force. Whether new migrants will come to Japan only short term or stay in the country to marry and raise families is an open question.
More foreign labour will certainly help alleviate labour shortages, but whether it will have a more enduring effect remains to be seen.
If immigration is not necessarily the panacea, what is? Making it possible for women to participate in the labour market and simultaneously have two or more children if they wish to.
Higher rates of female labour force participation throughout East Asia are helping to alleviate the developing labour shortages.
But how compatible is women’s work with childrearing? It is here that pervasive gender inequality — both at home and in the workplace — exerts a strong dampening effect on governments’ efforts to raise the birth rate.
Japan and South Korea are cases in point. Their demographic crises have brought into sharp relief the difficulties that married women face in trying to manage responsibilities in the workplace and at home. Gender inequality is extremely high in both of these spheres in the two countries.
International surveys consistently show that Japanese and Korean men contribute the least to housework compared with men in other OECD countries. The average Japanese or Korean married woman does 80–90 percent of housework and childcare. Similarly, gender inequality in the workplace is stark, partly as a result of long work hours and the demand for ‘face time’ in the office.
Talented women who endeavour to compete on an equal footing with men generally feel pressure to adopt the working style expected of their male counterparts. This involves extended work hours and a willingness to respond unquestionably to last-minute managerial demands and companies’ implicit requests to forego time with family in lieu of projects at work.
These demands create a collision course for dual-earner couples unless they have the benefit of co-residing with a mother or mother-in-law who will pick children up from daycare or school and bear a large share of childrearing.
Women lacking such support and working in full-time jobs are more likely to have only one child. Childcare leave helps women return to work after giving birth and high-quality public daycare is a boon to working parents.
But neither of these alleviate the time squeeze between home and workplace caused by long working hours.
Studies of dual-earner couples in many parts of Europe demonstrate that the propensity to have a second child is related to the share of household work done by the male partner.
Recent research shows that this is the case in Japan as well and demonstrates empirically that Japanese men’s share of housework is lower if they work in large companies where they are generally surrounded by men whose behaviour is similar.
If these men shift to companies where their male peers are doing more housework, they themselves increase their housework share.
This suggests that peer effects among men in the same workplace may be operating to maintain or reduce gender inequality at home. This greater sharing of household time demands can in turn make it more likely that dual-earner couples will proceed to have a second child.
But reducing women’s household time demands is not necessarily the whole story. In Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan it is much more common for couples to rely on paid household help and caregivers than in countries such as Japan and South Korea.
Yet even though some of the time burdens on women are reduced, fertility is still low. Why?
This brings us back to the demands of the workplace, but it also raises the question of whether the severely competitive educational systems and labour markets in East Asian societies might also be contributing to low fertility.
Young single men and women complain of not having time to date or to find the right partner. This results in ever-later marriages and some of the highest non-marriage rates in the post-industrial world.
Highly competitive educational systems also factor into parents’ calculation about whether they should invest all of their resources in one child or spread them out among two or three children.
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The evidence is clear that gender inequality and fertility are closely linked in many East Asian societies, particularly in Japan and South Korea. The relationship between the two may not explain low fertility in every country equally well.
But without more reasonable expectations of both sexes in the workplace and more equal contributions of both sexes at home, it is likely that fertility in East Asia will not increase.
By Mary C Brinton, Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. This article is abridged from a version that appears in the latest issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Investing in Women‘. It has been republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license.