Fertility rate dips again

The first decline in Japan’s total fertility rate — the average number of children that a women is estimated to give birth to in her lifetime — in nine years may indicate that government efforts to salvage the low birthrate have not brought much of intended effects. Still, we should avoid the expectation that such efforts will bear immediate fruit to remedy the nation’s demographic woes in the first place. Policymakers need to maintain the steady implementation of necessary steps without being swayed by short-term ups-and-downs in the figures.

The birthrate had been inching up after hitting a historic low of 1.26 in 2005 — until it fell by 0.01 point in 2014 from the previous year to 1.42. In any case, the rate remains far below the 2.07 deemed necessary to maintain the population — a level that has not been recorded in Japan since 1973. Last year the nation suffered the largest natural decline in its population as the number of newborns hit a record low and the number of deaths rose to a postwar high — a reflection of the rapid aging of the population.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimates that the population’s downtrend will accelerate. It is seen likely that the number of newborns — which fell 26,284 in 2014 from the previous year to 1,003,532 — will dip below 1 million as early as this year.

Alarming demographic forecasts prompted the government last year to set a new policy agenda to fight the low fertility rate. The goal is to maintain the population at 100 million in 2060 — compared with 126.88 million today. Still, a long-term forecast compiled by the government shows that even with a sharp recovery in the fertility rate, the decline in Japan’s total population will not come to a halt until it stabilizes at around 90 million in 2090. Even if the fertility rate picks up, the pool of women of child-bearing age itself is shrinking so there will still be fewer babies born.

But the prospect that it’s going to take decades to halt the population downtrend does not mean that efforts to address the nation’s demographic woes should be abandoned. Policies already identified as remedies for the sluggish birthrate — ranging from measures to boost the employment stability of young people to steps to support working mothers and child-rearing — should be pursued as necessary investments to help maintain the nation’s social integrity.

The fertility rate declined as people started to marry late or not marry at all. On the other hand, various research shows that roughly 90 percent of the nation’s youths want to marry. Identifying and removing potential hurdles that discourage them from marrying young and having families — including unstable jobs and low income, as well as various costs associated with giving birth and raising children — will be the obvious steps to take.
One issue highlighted in the latest demographic data was what has come to be called the hurdle of the second child — that many women hesitate to have another child after giving birth to their first. The decline in the number of second children born to couples represented more than half of the total fall in the number of newborns in 2014 compared with the previous year.

According to a recent survey by an organization disseminating information about childbirth and child-rearing, 75 percent of married men and women polled replied that they face one or more hurdles that make them hesitate to have a second child — while roughly 80 percent of the respondents said they ideally hope to have “two or more” children. About 64 percent of working mothers who responded to the poll cited “reasons related to jobs” as hurdles for them having a second child. It is reported that many working mothers have reservations about taking a second maternity leave from work shortly after taking their first one.

Today, many young couples cannot live on the husband’s income alone. Employers need to create a job environment where working mothers can take maternity leave and then return to work without difficulty. Also important will be efforts to reduce chronically long working hours for many salaried workers so fathers can help out more at home with child-rearing duties.

It has long been pointed out that government spending on support for childbirth and child-rearing in Japan is far lower than that in other advanced industrialized economies — equivalent to a mere 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. It’s time that the government shift some of the resources out of the welfare spending now dedicated to the elderly population — such as by increasing the social security burden on certain wealthy retirees — and invest more in support for the child-rearing generation. But increased government spending alone will not be sufficient to raise the birthrate. Improvement in the work environment for both women and men will depend a lot on sustained efforts by private-sector employers, as well as on changes in the mindsets of workers themselves.