Japan’s demographic woes continue even as the Abe administration has placed the fight against depopulation high on its policy agenda. The January-June figures indicate that the number of births in 2014 may fall short of 1 million for the first time, and that deaths will likely outnumber births at a pace faster than in the previous year.
The government should keep up its effort to expand public support for childbirths and child-rearing, but we need to realize that such efforts are not going to reverse the long-term population downtrend anytime soon — or even for decades.
The administration has set the goal of maintaining Japan’s population around 100 million five decades from now — the first time a specific number has been cited by the government in its policies on demographics — after the recent alarming figures reminded it that declining population will be a serious drag on the nation’s economic growth and put the future of its social security programs in doubt.
A think tank report warns that the trend, exacerbated by the continuing population flight to big cities, will threaten the survival of many of the nation’s rural municipalities in coming decades. But the warnings against the long-term demographic trend are nothing new.
A 2012 report by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecast that if the fertility rate does not pick up, Japan’s population will plunge from 128 million in 2010 to 86.74 million in 2060, when people aged 65 or older will account for nearly 40 percent of the total, compared with 23 percent in 2010.
There have been calls for greater public support for child-rearing since the fertility rate — the average number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime — dipped to 1.57 in 1989, renewing the previous low set in 1966.
The fertility rate is gradually picking up in recent years after hitting a low of 1.26 in 2005, inching up again in 2013 to 1.43. However, the number of births each year has been falling since 2011 to postwar lows. Officials predict that the low birth trend will likely continue because, even as the fertility rate crawls upward, the number of women in child-bearing age has already declined.
The government’s target of halting the population decline at 100 million is said to require the fertility rate to climb back to 2.07 — the level deemed necessary to keep the population steady, which Japan has not seen since 1973 — by 2030. But even if that happens, it is estimated that the population downtrend will not be halted for decades more to come.
This of course does not mean that today’s efforts will be in vain. The government spends a mere 1 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product on support for childbirth and raising children. Some industrialized economies like France and Sweden, which spend more than 3 percent of GDP in such public spending, are said to have seen their fertility rates climb back to around 2 after dipping to around 1.5.
Measures to help women keep up their jobs as they raise their children, such as boosting the availability of day-care centers for children, will also contribute to enhancing women’s participation in the labor force.
The fertility rate in Japan has declined chiefly as an increasing number of people marry late or do not marry at all. In 2010, the ratio of people who had not married through the age of 50 stood at 20.1 percent for men and 10.6 percent for women — seven times higher for men, and twice as high for women, compared with 30 years earlier. Last year, the number of newlywed couples hit a postwar low of about 660,000.
There are a variety of reasons for people not to marry, including changing lifestyles or family values, but a major reason is believed to be Japan’s sluggish economy since the 1990s that has left many young workers in unstable jobs.
Japanese firms have cut back on regular full-time employment and relied more on low-paying irregular workers, who have come to account for nearly 40 percent of Japan’s employed workforce. Today, 27 percent of workers in the 25-to-34 age bracket are hired in irregular positions such as part-time and contract employment, compared with 12 percent in 1993.
A labor ministry survey of workers aged 15 to 34 and their employers, released last week, showed that such irregular workers are generally paid much less than their regular full-time counterparts. About 40 percent of them said they rely on their parents’ income as the main source of their livelihood.
The same survey indicated that about one-fifth of the full-time employees polled work more than 50 hours a week, including 7 percent who work 60 or more hours — a level deemed to raise the risk of health damage from overwork. These hardly seem to constitute a prime incentive for young workers to marry or have children.
Improving the employment security and the working conditions of youths will be an important avenue for efforts to fight the population decline for which both the government and businesses can do more.
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