Japan’s prime minister Kishida Fumio warned last week that the country’s demographic crisis was approaching a tipping point. “Our nation is on the cusp of whether it can maintain its societal functions,” Kishida told the Japanese parliament on 23 January. “It is now or never when it comes to policies regarding births and child-rearing – it is an issue that simply cannot wait any longer.”
This is not an overstatement. Japan already has one of the world’s oldest populations (second only to the city-state of Monaco), and it is ageing rapidly. In 2022, the number of births fell below 800,000 for the first time since records began (in 1899), eight years earlier than the government had predicted. This compares to more than 2 million births per year during the baby boom of the 1970s. Life expectancy has also increased. This means that almost a third of the population – 30 per cent – is now aged 65 or above according to the World Bank, raising the cost of social security programmes, such as pensions and medical care, while the proportion of working-age people who pay into these programmes is shrinking.
Japan is not the only country grappling with this issue. China, long the world’s most populous nation, reported that its population fell last year for the first time in six decades. The last time the population decreased was in 1960-61, during China’s Great Famine. India is expected to overtake China by the end of the year. Meanwhile, South Korea, which already had the world’s lowest fertility rate, broke its own record in 2022, with the average number of children per woman falling to 0.79. (This compares to 1.6 in the United States, where the rate has also fallen, 1.6 in the UK, 1.3 in Japan, and 1.18 in China – yes, I know it’s weird to talk about children in decimals.)
[See also: China’s economy will rebound – but for how long?]
There are specific factors contributing to these figures in each of these countries – particularly in China, where the government’s “one-child policy” (which lasted from 1980 until 2015) and the gender imbalance it produced accelerated this demographic downturn. Yet there are also commonalities: the rising cost of childcare and education; the rising cost of living in general, combined with growing economic anxiety; the lack of support for working parents; the unequal burden on women; the lack of access to affordable healthcare. I could go on.
Equally clear is that the existing governmental policies designed to tackle the problem – such as offering financial incentives and urging citizens to have more children – are not working. In China, for instance, newlyweds have reported receiving repeated calls from local government officials asking when they will have a baby. The South Korean government is estimated to have spent more than $200bn over the past 16 years on initiatives to improve birth rates, to no avail.
The scale is global. By 2030, one in six people worldwide will be aged 60 or over, according to the World Health Organisation. By 2050, that number will be more than one in five. Eighty per cent of that older population will be living in low- and middle-income countries. In other words, many countries face the prospect of growing old before they become rich.
Kishida is right to frame the scale of the challenge confronting Japan in such stark terms. The country is on an unsustainable trajectory – with a population that is both rapidly ageing and shrinking – and many of the world’s other major economies are on the same course. This is a “now or never” moment to tackle declining birth rates, but the track record for governments’ intervention on this issue is poor. Without systemic change to tackle the underlying economic and societal inequities, few families are likely to answer the prime minister’s call.
This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out every Monday; subscribe here.