Is the Asian continent on track for demographic decline?

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Falling birthrates and an aging population are not just Chinese problems: the slow demographic transformation is changing the shape of Southeast Asia.

Asia, historically the most populous continent in the world, is going through an unprecedented demographic transition. In fact, the population growth rate is declining for most countries, and policies to boost fertility do not seem to be succeeding. Asians are aging, living longer and tending to move from the metropolis to secondary cities, while a social change is underway that sees women working more and bearing fewer children.

The most striking case is that of China, where population growth continues to slow and the "demographic window" - precisely the phase that had helped China create the conditions for the unprecedented economic growth we have witnessed in recent years - is closing.

China in 2016 relaxed the "one-child policy" adopted in 1980 by Deng Xiaoping, one of the strictest family planning measures in history, allowing couples to have two or in some cases three children. But the reform, despite a slight increase in the two years immediately following, failed to reverse the downward trend in the country's birth rate, as confirmed by the census carried out at the end of 2020. The causes are probably to be found in the increase in the cost of living, but also in the level of education of women, who are now more attentive to family planning and tend to prefer a career outside the home.

However, Beijing is not alone in witnessing this demographic trajectory: in most East Asian countries, even without fertility control policies like China's, the fertility rate is getting lower and lower. South Korea's population, for example, declined for the first time in 2020, with the number of births dropping by 10% compared to the previous year, and in parallel, the composition of households is also gradually shrinking, with single-person households becoming increasingly common, already accounting for almost 33% of the total in South Korea.

Southeast Asia is no exception, with a population growth rate halved from 1990 (2%) to 2020 (1%) and many countries including Brunei, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam with a fertility rate below replacement level. However, the decline affects the entire region, with exceptions of a predominantly cultural or religious nature within countries (for example, ethnic Malaysian families in Malaysia continue to be larger because their culture favors larger families and communities, just as in the Philippines the birth rate is higher due to less widespread use of contraceptives for religious reasons).

Contributing to this downward trend may have been the adoption of family planning programs to curb the population explosion of the 1970s and the increasing number of women deciding to study and enter the workforce. There is also a clear correlation between low birth rates and income levels. Due to the high economic growth that has affected these countries since the 1960s, per capita income has risen, changing lifestyles and lifestyle choices, making it increasingly common to choose to remain single and marry at an older age, thus leading to lower birth rates.

Overall, much of Asia is also aging - and fast, especially thanks to better eating habits, advances in disease prevention and sanitation, improved health facilities and services, and services such as health insurance. By 2050, an estimated 21.1 percent of Southeast Asia's population will be 60 years old or older, creating a major problem for the pension system that will likely also cause an overhaul of social security systems. However, the transition from an "aging society" (i.e. with a proportion of elderly people, considered to be people aged 65 years or older, between 7-14% ) to a so-called "elderly" society (i.e. with a proportion of elderly people between 14-21%) will be very rapid: it is estimated that it will take only 22 years in Thailand and 19 in Vietnam, which means that Thailand will become an "elderly" society in 2024 and Vietnam will be in 2039. A very low number, if we think that in Sweden and France it took 85 years and 115 years respectively.

To slow down this process, some Southeast Asian countries are beginning to implement birth incentive policies, ranging from the right to parental leave to subsidies for assisted reproduction. However, not all governments can afford these policies, which are more often than not overly burdensome to government budgets.

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