Aging Asia's Demographic Dilemma

By 2050, half of Japan's population will be over 52 and, according to the Economist, that country will be “the oldest society the world has ever known.” By the end of this century, the Japanese are expected to number 47 million, down from today’s 127.7 million. If there is any reason to be pessimistic about the future of the Land of the Rising Sun, it is its collapsing demography.

Japan’s total fertility rate—generally speaking, the average number of births per female over her lifetime—is now estimated to be 1.39. That is well below the 2.10 TFR needed for a population to replace itself.

Apart from instances of war, famine, and pestilence, Japan’s demographic decline will be unprecedented. Yet the country will not be unique for long. Other East Asian nations are sure to follow the Japanese trajectory.

China, which everyone compares favorably to the island nation, claims to have a TFR of 1.80. That is Beijing’s official number, which has remained unchanged for more than a decade. In reality, the TFR is closer to 1.40. And the official Xinhua News Agency, in an unusually candid report, stated it may be even as low as 1.20. The high official figure of 1.8 is inconsistent with China’s census data and hard to believe in light of Beijing’s notorious—and strictly enforced—one-child policy.

Other societies in East Asia have TFRs that are among the lowest in the world. South Korea is at 1.23, Taiwan 1.10, Hong Kong 1.09, and Macau 0.92.

Singapore is believed to have the world’s worst rate, a stunning 0.78. The island’s government has sponsored cruises for couples and other social events designed to raise the birth rate. Bureaucrats, across the range of countries, have a decent record in getting couples to procreate, but officials have not achieved long-term success in upping fertility rates. Government incentives merely accelerate births, rather than increase the absolute number of them.

If birth rates across East Asia do not increase, the region will become a demographic sinkhole. What will be the consequences?

Japan provides clues. Whole villages in that countryside are being abandoned as people migrate to its great urban areas, such as those surrounding megacities Tokyo and Osaka. The overall economy appears headed for contraction as fewer Japanese go to work or head to the stores. Tokyo’s external policies now look especially benign. Perhaps the most fascinating symptom is that the Japanese, as a people, no longer have great ambitions. Japan these days feels … small.

At the moment, there seems to be nothing that will reverse Japan’s demographic trends this decade. If they do not ever change, the last Japanese citizen will be born in 3011. About 80 years after that, he or she will die and the country will then become extinct.

Of course, the extinction of the Japanese does not seem possible. But Japan—and East Asia—are headed into uncharted demographic territory.

We have almost no precedents to tell us what happens next.

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