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The government’s new outline of measures to stop the accelerating decline of childbirth — which is estimated to have fallen to 864,000 in 2019, the lowest on record — maintains the target set in 2015 by the Abe administration to raise the total fertility rate — the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime — to 1.8 by 2025. Yet the target remains nowhere in sight, with the latest figure in 2018 at 1.42.

The 1.8 figure represents what the government thinks will be achieved if all young adults who want children can realize their wish. If so, efforts to reach the goal must first identify what lies behind the gap between the target and the real situation — or what hampers the younger generation from having children — and reassess whether the measures taken so far have been effective in removing the obstacles.

In fact, the various measures taken since the 1990s, such as greater support for working mothers and an expansion of child-care services, have failed to reverse the trend of ever-fewer births, leading to a rapidly graying population. The number of children born last year was around 40 percent of the level in the mid-1970s, when Japan last had a fertility rate above 2.0, which is required to sustain the population. While the fertility rate inched up after hitting a low of 1.26 in 2005, it fell again from 2016 to 2018.

The trend is accelerating. The annual number of newborns dipped below 900,000 two years earlier than was forecast by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. And since the number of women in primary child-bearing age has declined significantly over the past several decades, a slight improvement in the fertility rate is not expected to result in a recovery in the number of newborns for some time to come. The number of children up to the age of 14 as of April 1 was 15.12 million, the lowest on record and accounting for 12 percent of the total population — reportedly the lowest among countries with a population of at least 40 million.

The new outline released last week, the first update in five years, calls for increased economic support for childbirth and child-rearing — including reducing the financial burden of fertility treatment, higher child allowances, expanding the program for free higher education, and higher allowances for paternity leave. But many of the measures are only listed as future steps that need to be concretized and backed up by fiscal resources.

The Abe administration, which has called the rapidly graying population and falling number of births a “national crisis,” introduced free preschool education and daycare services for children aged 3 to 5 last fall. But criticism lingers that the government should put priority on boosting the capacity of day-care services instead, and that by making the services free, more working mothers’ children could be put on waiting lists to be accommodated at such facilities.

The long-term decline in the fertility rate and the number of newborns is attributed to a variety of factors, including changes in lifestyles and social values. More people are marrying later in life or not marrying at all, and what is often cited as a key factor behind the trend is a growing sense of economic insecurity that discourage young people from having families.

One reason that the “second baby-boomer generation” — children born in the 1970s to postwar baby boomers — did not give rise to a third baby boom is said to be that large numbers of this generation faced extremely tough employment prospects following the collapse of the bubble boom in the early 1990s, a time when businesses cut back on new hires and turned to part-timers and temporary workers. Young men with such jobs are said to have a greater chance of remaining unmarried than those with regular full-time jobs.

While the job market has improved significantly in recent years, the ranks of people with unstable and low-paying irregular jobs now account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s labor force. The Abe administration has sought to improve their conditions, but it remains to be seen whether the new “equal work, equal pay” rule — which mandates that people engaged in same job tasks would in principle get the same pay irrespective of their job status — will reduce the gap.

As the economy heads deeper into recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people with irregular jobs are the first to be impacted. In April, the number of people on irregular jobs declined by a record 970,000 from a year ago. All-out efforts must be made to prevent the situation from escalating into an employment crisis that could have long-lasting demographic effects.

When schools were closed due to the pandemic, the fact that the burden of childcare at home falls disproportionately on mothers was once again highlighted. At the same time, the stay-home request under the COVID-19 state of emergency, which resulted in many employees working remotely, shed light on more flexible and diverse ways of work that allow fathers to spend more time with family. These should be further explored to help encourage young couples to have children.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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