Falling birth rates spell trouble for Southeast Asia
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Falling birth rates spell trouble for Southeast Asia

Birth rates have been declining in nearly every country for decades, alarming demographers and causing governments to begin asking a hard question -- what happens if our population growth stalls, or even begins to slide backwards?

The global population is still growing, but it is slowing, a looming change that many have called a demographic time bomb. People in almost every country are simply having fewer children. Africa is the only region projected to have strong population growth for the rest of the century.

The shock of the coronavirus pandemic may have made it worse. Some experts predicted a baby boom when the pandemic started, but the opposite has happened. Many millennials feel dismayed over the state of the world and uncertain about what the future holds. As a result, they have either delayed or put off altogether plans to start or expand a family.

This may sound like a welcome relief in a time of over-crowded cities and strained natural resources, but if left too long, declining birth rates can have negative long-term effects on the economy.

For a start, the labour market will shrink, upsetting the balance of supply and demand. There will be fewer young people to take entrepreneurial risks and invent the next billion-dollar startup.

Tax bases and industrial competitiveness begin to erode. Schools start to close, and many of the social safety nets that help the old and sick -- largely paid for by younger generations -- start to fail.

China, the world's most populous nation, has attempted to interrupt the trend. Earlier this year a new civil code came into effect requiring Chinese couples who file for divorce to take a 30-day cooling off period before the application is accepted. It seems to be working. In the first quarter of last year China recorded 612,000 divorces, but that number dropped by 52% to 296,000 in the same period this year.

But after four straight years of declining birth rates -- including a drop of 18% last year alone -- Chinese policymakers realised that even more aggressive measures are needed. They have now allowed people to have up to three children per family, relaxing the two-child policy implemented in 2015, which was itself a relaxation of the original one-child policy put in place in 1980.

However, some commentators say this might not be enough to reverse the change, as small families have become the norm in many countries that have experienced rapid urbanisation.

Thailand is one such country. Its birth rate dropped from 6.2 births per woman in the 1960s to 1.5 today. In Southeast Asia, only Singapore has a lower birth rate (1.1), far below the 2.1 required to maintain a stable population.

The number of retirees in Thailand will expand rapidly in the 2030s, and the United Nations estimates that by the end of the century, the country's population will fall by one-third, putting an incredible strain on its already challenged social support systems.

A solution will not be easy, but time is running out. As we have seen in China, it's not that young people can't have families -- it's simply that many have decided that they do not want them.

Solving this demographic challenge will require showing young people that having children is sustainable, both in terms of their own finances and preserving the planet.

Dr Thaweelap Rittapirom is a director and executive vice-president of Bangkok Bank. For more columns in this series, please visit www.bangkokbank.com

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