Editorials

The nation's falling number of newborns

The prospect that the number of newborns in Japan this year will fall below 900,000 — only three years after dipping below the 1 million mark — comes as little surprise. While the nation’s fertility rate remains close to its historic low, the number of women of primary child-bearing ages has already declined significantly as a result of the long-term trend of ever-fewer births. The annual number of babies born in this country will likely continue to fall.

In its efforts to address the rapidly aging and declining population, the government calls for measures to improve the social conditions for young couples to raise children — so that they can marry and have kids as they wish. Such steps should be steadily implemented. At the same time, the government needs to start reviewing the social security system — whose sustainability depends heavily on the younger generation — and other policies on the assumption that it’s tough to reverse the accelerating aging of the population.

Officials say there will be fewer than 870,000 babies born in Japan in 2019 — down from 918,400 last year. The number of newborns in the first nine months of 2019 fell by 5.6 percent from the same period last year — a rate of decline twice as fast as in 2018. The forecast for 2019 is roughly 50,000 fewer than the estimate given only two years ago by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, which then predicted that the number of newborns will dip below 900,000 in 2021. These figures show that the aging of the population is accelerating even faster than was earlier assumed.

Fewer newborns means the nation’s population will be aging and declining faster. That points to an ever-shrinking pool of the working-age population, which supports the public pension and health insurance programs with their premium payments, in the coming decades. The declining ranks of youths threatens the future sustainability of the social security system.

Japan was alerted to the dangers of the aging population nearly 30 years ago in 1990, when it was revealed that the total fertility rate — the average number of babies a woman gives birth to in her lifetime — in the previous year had fallen to a new low of 1.57, worse than the previous low of 1.58 marked in 1966. That prompted the government to weigh and introduce measures to reverse the downtrend, such as helping working mothers keep their jobs while raising small kids and beefing up day care services for children.

Those measures failed to halt the decline in the fertility rate, which fell to as low as 1.26 in 2005. The rate then picked up moderately but has been falling again for the past three years to 1.42 in 2018. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has dubbed the aging and declining population a “national crisis,” set such goals as eliminating children on the waiting list for day care services and nursery schools. In October, the administration took steps to provide free day care and preschool education for children ages 3 to 5. These steps, however, appear to have had little effect in halting the slide in the fertility rate or the number of newborns.

Japan has not had a fertility rate above 2, the level deemed necessary to maintain the population, since 1974, and the number of newborns kept dropping after dipping below 2 million in 1975 — and falling below 1 million in 2016. The government has set a target of raising the fertility rate to 1.8 by 2025, but even modest improvements in the birthrate are not expected to reverse the trend of the declining number of newborns, since the number of women in their 20s and 30s have already fallen sharply. As of October last year, the number of women in their 30s stood at 6.96 million, while those in their 20s are even fewer — 5.78 million.

As the Cabinet Office states in its draft for the government’s new basic outline of measures to address the demographic woes, a variety of factors lies behind the ever-fewer births, ranging from unstable economic conditions of many young people to difficulties that continue to haunt women who raise kids while working. People are either marrying late or not marrying at all, due to multiple reasons including their changing views on marriage and life values. The ratio of people who never married to the age of 50, which was below 5 percent for both men and women in 1985, had shot up to 23 percent among men and 14 percent among women by 2015.

Since the declining number of newborns is the result of a long-term demographic trend over the past several decades, efforts to address the problem will no doubt take time before having any tangible effect. There’s no need for alarm over year-on-year changes in the numbers. Still, people involved in the efforts need to review whether the steps taken so far are indeed the right solution, modify them where necessary, and steadily implement the required measures.