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Why Aren’t People Having Kids in Taiwan?

Let’s put this in the category of things I had no clue about until I moved back to Taipei. First of all, it turns out my Facebook feed is wrong: not everyone is having kids. And especially not in Taiwan, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

The CIA ranked Taiwan’s birth rate at #222 out of #224 countries for 2016. The countries ranked lower than Taiwan are Macau at #223 and Singapore at lucky last. Doing marginally better than us are South Korea at #220 and Hong Kong at #221.

How bad could the situation be? I looked at coverage about Taiwan’s dismal birth rate in mainstream English media going back to 2009. And let me just say…whoa.

2009

The situation seemed flat-out dire in 2009 when Taiwan had the lowest birth rate in the world – less than one baby born per woman. Why was this happening? Some blamed it on superstition. In the Chinese zodiac, 2009 was a “widow’s year”, which meant it was a bad year to get married.

But then you read stuff like the following quote and you wonder, should these people be having kids anyway?

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.”

Other nuggets: Taiwan’s divorce rate is 38%. Two-thirds of working women are university educated. Only a third of women are married by age 30.

2010

It’s the Year of the Tiger, and apparently no one wants to have a tiger cub because it’s the most fierce of the Chinese zodiacs. But the Ministry of the Interior doesn’t quit. It holds a baby-making slogan competition with a one million NT cash prize. The winner: “Children – our best heirloom.” Catchy.

There are state-sponsored speed dating events designed to match singles. Events are held in fancy hotels and even include daytrips. Employees from private companies are invited as well to mix things up. The program is described as “cooperation” between public and private sectors. It’s a relief they didn’t call it “synergy”.

More good news: the Child Welfare Bureau announces childcare subsidies. But sadly it only applies to families with three kids where one of the kids is under two. The subsidy isn’t amazing either: only 3,000TWD per month for babysitting services.

Another tactic is releasing scary projections like these:

In 1951, the average Taiwanese woman would have seven children. In 2010, the fertility rate was 0.89. The population is expected to start shrinking in the next 15 years. Equally worrying is it’s rapid aging. About 14% of citizens are over 65. Within two decades, that will double.

On current trends, it will become the oldest country in the world, warned Yang Wen-shan, a demographer at the Academia Sinica in Taipei: “Right now, seven working people are supporting one older person. By 2045, 1.45 people will be supporting one.”

Dun, dun, dun.

2011

Taiwanese women openly discuss the deeper societal, economic and workplace issues associated with starting a family. From this article:

“We think it’s not suitable to raise children, especially in Taiwan. In Taiwan, when a girl gets married she has to sacrifice a lot,” one says.

“Once she reaches a certain academic level she can’t just stay at home and take care of kids and her parents-in-law, but that’s still what the older generation expects from them.”

Another says: “Taiwan’s work hours are really long. That makes it difficult to get married and have kids. You might not have much free time and it’s hard to relax.”

Some bigger issues: Wages in Taiwan are considered low compared to the cost of childcare and property prices. Many couples still live with their parents or in-laws. Many Taiwanese women also delay getting married to pursue academic degrees or careers. Remember: two-thirds of working women are college educated. Perhaps they’re too busy leaning in to get knocked up.

2012

It’s the Year of the Dragon and horray, births are up! Everyone wants a dragon baby! Thank god, because people were starting to lose their shit. The President even called the situation a “serious threat to national security.

You’d think people would get busy for national security reasons, but then you have people like Sean Lin, a 24-year old doctor from Taipei, who said this:

“I think Taiwan’s low fertility rate is absolutely a big problem. I not only don’t want children, but also have no plans for marriage. It’s not for economic reasons; I simply prefer more emotional freedom and believe that a family would be a burden.” Thanks for sharing that, Sean. Let’s hope you’re not a pediatrician.

Even worse, it turns out superstitions about the Chinese zodiac are no joke:

Recorded from the 1950s on, birth rates in Taiwan have been clearly influenced by the ancient Chinese zodiac’s 12 animal signs. The years in which Taiwanese couples decided to give birth most often came in the Year of the Dragon: 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988 and 2000. 

The belief is that children born under the dragon sign are not only honest, sensitive and brave, but will also be free from habits like borrowing money or making flowery speeches. Quite the opposite is believed about the Year of the Tiger. Whoever was born in 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986 or 1998 tends to question authority and is therefore likely to cause trouble for himself, his family or to his employers at some stage of life. 

Lastly, New Taipei City starts to offer discounted cab rides to pregnant women going to the doctor. Drastic times, drastic measures.

2013

Oh, hell no. The Ministry of the Interior says the number of births in 2013 dropped 13% compared to 2012.

To add insult to injury, pregnant Taiwanese women are being encouraged to pass along unused pads and tampons to other women as “lucky charms”. Speechless.

2014

The whole birth rate thing is, like, totally old news. The media is sick of reporting it. People are sick of hearing about it. Let’s just talk about something else, okay?

But then The Diplomat poses this cheerful question: “East Asia’s Future: Extinction?”

2015

Finally some good news. Births are up in 2015 — almost to 2012 levels. And marriages are up as well. The Ministry of the Interior takes full credit for both, saying both signs are proof their policies are working. Good for you, MOI!

Incentives for having a baby include a 2,500TWD – 4,000TWD monthly subsidy for each family raising a baby and a 2,000TWD monthly subsidy for babysitting services. Not great, but better than what was offered back in 2010.

2016

I can’t take it anymore — births are down again for the first 9 months of the year. It’s like a damn yoyo. But new data from the Ministry of the Interior shows a new theory emerging. Not only are fewer babies being born, but fewer babies are being born to “overseas brides” from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia.

The reason for fewer overseas brides? The economies in their home countries are doing well, making it “less attractive for them to marry Taiwanese men and move to Taiwan.” Oh, burn.

For a better look at how Taiwan’s population has shifted over time, see this 2016 data report by Matt Stiles.

2017

It’s happening. According to this July article: “the number of senior citizens in Taiwan officially outnumbered the population of young children for the first time” in April of this year. This is despite the government throwing monetary incentives at the problem, which they say was only a temporary solution anyway. Right.

In an incredible twist, now government officials say they are willing to invest resources in crazy tactics such as improving public child care facilities, raising young adults’ salaries, and providing more social housing.

Let’s wait and see, shall we?

Photo Credit: Life is Backpacking

P.S. It wasn’t easy finding a good image to use for this post. When I did a Google Image search for “Taiwan Baby” most of the photos were of the baby panda…

Comments (3):

  1. Trent

    September 3, 2017 at 19:42

    Very good insights! And entertaining to read.

    Reply
  2. Laopi

    September 29, 2017 at 16:13

    Hi!

    Thanks for this article. I shared it on Reddit [1] where it got **a lot** of feedback.

    Regarding the last point (“government officials say they are willing to invest resources in crazy tactics such as improving public child care facilities, raising young adults’ salaries, and providing more social housing”), do we have anymore information about this?

    For instance, I find that strange (to say the least) that, in a country with such a low birth rate, you are on your own for the first 6 birthdays of your child in terms of education and care. Education is not mandatory before 6 if I understood correctly, so you either have the choice of paying premium prices for private education (in a school where your child will become a good little parrot-monkey to make his parents proud) or… well, stop working to take care of him/her.

    In France, for instance, education is not mandatory before primary school either, but kindergarten is public and free, so your child will learn to socialize and will learn the basic of reading/writing with public teachers. For free…

    [1] https://www.reddit.com/r/taiwan/comments/72jfiw/why_arent_people_having_kids_in_taiwan/

    Reply
    • Kathy

      September 30, 2017 at 00:28

      I agree — so many bizarre things. For instance, I heard from a friend there are 24-hour, Monday to Friday childcare services where parents basically just pick their kids up for the weekend. I’ve also heard of toddlers living with grandparents full-time — even if the grandparents live in another city. And while lots of people love the idea of staying in a confinement hotel for a month after birth, the idea of having my newborn sleep on a separate floor fed by strangers for its first month of life would be hard to follow through with. Lots of cultural things when it comes to parenting — it makes me wonder how much of it contributes to people not wanting kids at all.

      Reply

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