How to get more women working
Shrinking populations are becoming a major demographic challenge for several countries. East Asia, in particular, has been seeing an alarming fall in fertility rates. The figure in Japan averaged just 1.31 from 2015 to 2020, but Taiwan (1.15) and South Korea (1.11) fared even worse.
According to the United Nations, a country's population begins to drop when fertility falls below the replacement rate of 2.1. This has led to labour shortages, pension fund crises and the obsolescence of old economic models.
Southeast Asia is also at a critical juncture. Thailand, where the fertility rate was once as high as 6, has seen its figure tumble to 1.53. Its working-age population began to decline in 2019, which partly explains the sluggish economic growth of 2.4%, just one-third of the 7.5% annual expansion seen in the 1970s.
Vietnam, meanwhile, officially became an ageing society in 2017. Last year the government lifted the retirement age in order to head off a pension crisis. It will reach 62 for men (up from 60) by 2028 and 60 (up from 55) for women by 2035.
In contrast to the UN's World Population Prospects 2019 report, which forecast that the global population would continue growing to reach 10.9 billion by 2100, new projections show birthrates in developing countries are falling faster than expected. By that year, 23 countries, including Japan, will see their populations shrink to half their current levels or less, according to a study by the University of Washington.
In Japan, the government has set a target to lift the fertility rate to 1.8 but experts are sceptical. For a start, they say, support to parents is inadequate. Public spending on childcare allowances, parental leave benefits, daycare and other family-related programmes is just 1.79% of GDP, roughly half the ratios of France and Sweden, according to OECD data for 2017.
Census data released late last year showed that Japan's working-age population -- those aged between 15 and 64 -- dropped 3% from 2015, to 75.08 million. The number of children aged 14 or younger fell 6% to 15.03 million. The 65-plus population, meanwhile, grew 7% to 36.02 million.
The Japanese economy will need to shift from one that relies on an expanding labour force to focusing on improvements in quality, and greater efforts will be needed to lift society's overall productivity.
But traditional gender roles and corporate norms that favour men will make achieving those goals difficult. For many working women, conflicts between family and work duties leave them no choice but to opt for part-time employment. Consequently, many struggle to climb up the career ladder and are consigned to jobs characterised by low wages, poor job security and limited growth opportunities.
Among 30- to 34-year-olds in Japan, 74% of men were full-time employees, compared with 44% of women. In the 45- to 49 bracket, the gap widens to 72% versus 32%.
Another survey that tracked households in which a baby was born in 2010 found the ratio of mothers working full-time after childbirth dropped to 25% from 38% over 10 years. In contrast, the ratio of mothers working part-time jumped from 19% before childbirth to 42%.
In the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, Japan ranked 120th out of 156 nations, placing it well below the average score of Group of Seven (G7) nations, and also behind South Korea and China.
In governmental and economic circles in Japan, the ratio of women in decision-making positions remains dispiritingly low despite efforts to improve female representation. Conservative mindsets are kept alive by older generations of primarily male senior employees in a seniority-based and highly hierarchical corporate culture.
Yet studies have found that tapping into the full potential of women's abilities could offer huge benefits to the workplace. For example, a Keio University analysis of data from listed companies between 2010 and 2015 found that a rise of 0.1 percentage point in the ratio of female managerial executives yielded a 0.5% gain in return on assets and a productivity improvement of 13%. Noticeable earnings improvements were also found at companies where women held 15% or more of the managerial positions.
Growing public awareness of gender issues is starting to compel Japanese policymakers to look beyond simply increasing the overall number of women in the workforce. To do that, they have to do more to take the burden off women's shoulders, such as offering more affordable and accessible childcare for working mothers.
As well, giving women a voice by actively involving them in developing gender equality policies will likely yield more success than existing men-made strategies for closing the gender gap.