POPULATION by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Taiwan bracing for demographic winter
, October 11, 2014
Taiwan is a small island, about half the size of Tasmania.
One might think that it is covered in habitation, but that is incorrect. Much of the centre of the island is mountainous and covered in forest; that area has a very low population density. The population of Taiwan is just over 23 million, about the same as Australia.
President Ma Ying-jeou
Contrary to what one might think, Taiwan’s cities are quite pleasant and convenient places in which to live. Their transport systems are far better than Australia’s.
Taiwan’s problem is not too many people, but too few. Unlike two similar places in Asia with very low birth rates, namely Singapore and Hong Kong, Taiwan can comfortably accommodate more people. Compared to Australia, Taiwan may be very small; but, compared to Singapore and Hong Kong, it is very big.
Taiwan has always worked on a very simple political deal. Welfare will be minimal, but you will always be able to find a job if you are prepared to work, so you can pay your own way. You are also expected to save hard. Even so, Taiwan has an excellent national health service that covers all citizens.
Taiwan’s looming “demographic winter” has several causes, prime among them being the “sandwich generation”. This age cohort consists of middle-aged people — and especially women in Chinese society — “sandwiched” between the dual expectations of caring for both their parents and their children. Nowadays, women in Taiwan are expected to hold down a job as well.
This places an impossible burden on Taiwan’s mothers. Wealthier families can afford to hire caretakers from Southeast Asia to take some of the load, but their numbers are restricted to around 500,000.
Another contributory factor is that many Taiwan women have a good life and simply don’t want to marry. Very few want to take on the arduous role of “farmer’s wife”.
As a result, many Taiwanese men have looked abroad for wives, mainly from Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. These new migrant residents and their children together number over 700,000 people, making them the nation’s fourth largest population group, surpassing Taiwan’s indigenous population
Taiwan’s birth-dearth problems are exacerbated by some peculiarly Chinese characteristics. The Chinese zodiac, which everyone takes very seriously, is composed of 12 animals, some mythological, with a different one for each lunar year. Some animals are regarded as luckier than others.
Everyone wants to have a baby in an auspicious year, in particular the Year of the Dragon. For example, Taiwan’s total number of live births each year had been languishing around 200,000; but in 2012 — the most recent Year of the Dragon — the birthrate rebounded to a 10-year high of 1.265 births per woman, with 229,481 babies being born that year.
In 2013 — the Year of the Snake, which is less auspicious — the number of babies born was only 199,113, a fall of 13 per cent from 2012, with a fertility rate of only 1.07 births per woman.
Like other countries whose governments have initiated campaigns to restrict births, Taiwan has found it difficult to turn the baby tap back on.
Singapore now has an active immigration policy to replenish its population, following its own demographic winter. Meanwhile China, Taiwan’s giant neighbour, is likely to have difficulty kick-starting its birthrate once it realises that its one-child policy was cruel and counterproductive. China’s urban-dwellers, in cities like Shanghai, have similar birthrates to Taiwan.
In the early 1950s, families in Taiwan typically had five or six children. But now the country has a de facto one-child policy. Education is very expensive in Taiwan, and Chinese parents place great emphasis on academic achievement. The government has introduced a variety of subsidies for babies and students, to ease the burden on parents.
The “sunflower generation” — young people in their teens and 20s — are regarded as being soft and delicate. This, however, is unfair. Some 30,000 young people from Taiwan are in Australia on working holiday visas at any one time. They have a very good reputation among employers for hard work, and they are willing to undertake jobs, such as in meat works and fruit-picking, that the native-born disdain.
The government of Taiwan, under the leadership of President Ma Ying-jeou, is taking steps to reboot population growth. Although this predicament has not received much attention until recently, when the people of Taiwan set their minds to doing something, it usually gets done.
Taiwan lives by its brainpower — it has no mountains of iron ore to blow up and ship to China. Its demographic profile reveals that it has one of the greatest population imbalances in the world, with too many elderly relying on too few young caregivers.
On current projections, by 2060 the country’s population over 65 will be four times the population aged under 14.
The “demographic dividend” which powered Taiwan’s growth in the ’70s and ’80s is now turning into a demographic deficit.
Perhaps it’s time the people of Taiwan stop arguing over issues of ethnicity and turn their minds instead to countering the looming demographic winter.