A decline in birth rates is an issue experienced by countries across the world, and Thailand is no exception. From 1963 to 1983, the average birth rate in Thailand was about 1 million a year. Fast forward to 2022, the total number of newborn babies dropped to 502,107 -- the lowest in 71 years -- while the death rate the same year was 595,965.
Sustarum: Learn from Scandinavia
To sustain the country's demographic scale, the total fertility rate (TFR) should be no less than 2.1 children per woman. In the 1960s, Thailand's annual TFR was about 6.1 births per woman but the rate has dropped dramatically to 1.4–1.5 in the past decade.
The government has introduced policies to raise the country's birth rate, but they have yet to bear fruit.
Recently, the Public Health Ministry announced its new plans to encourage couples to have more children. One is to establish at least one fertility clinic in every province, offering assistance for couples who experience reproduction issues.
Public Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew also said the ministry is considering pushing a state welfare programme that gives couples longer parental leave or boosts child support grants from 600 baht a month to 3,000 baht per month.
However, Assoc Prof Sustarum Thammaboosadee, a lecturer at Thammasat University's College of Interdisciplinary Studies, told the Bangkok Post that stronger government support for child-rearing might not always result in higher birth rates.
"Endorsing state-subsidised policies for people who want to have children is undoubtedly useful to the public, especially if the ministry can add fertility services to the Universal Coverage Scheme (UCS) or social security coverage. However, the factors that inspire people to have children are beyond state welfare," he said.
Fewer people, no problem
Assoc Prof Sustarum said that even in countries with strong social welfare systems, such as Scandinavian countries, birth rates have dropped over the years.
With well-supported parenting resources, which include paid parental leave, subsidised childcare and childcare infrastructure, the 2022 TFR is 1.6 births per woman in Norway, 1.7 in Denmark and 1.8 in Sweden.
However, the Scandinavian economy is stronger than many other parts of Europe despite a smaller population.
This might be a wake-up call for Thailand to adopt emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and automation to replace labour in certain areas such as the agricultural and manufacturing industries.
"With fewer babies born, society is turning to economic models which no longer rely heavily on population growth," Assoc Prof Sustarum said.
He said fewer children and older parents are not necessarily a bad scenario. In fact, emotionally and financially mature parents often can handle child-rearing better.
Apart from pushing heterosexual couples to have more children, Assoc Prof Sustarum said Thai laws regarding adoption by same-sex couples should also be considered.
"I think that taking care of live births in our country regardless of their status is no less important than pushing society to procreate," he shared his view.
A change of values
The growing trend of being childless might be accelerated by financial burdens in which the young cannot afford to raise kids. Even people keen on becoming parents still believe state-subsidised childcare is required.
On Oct 1, the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) published a survey, "Let's Have Children", which investigated public opinion on whether people want kids.
Among 1,310 participants, 65.1% said the most desirable form of state welfare encouraging people to have children is free education until university level and 63.6% said they want a child support grant until their children turn 15.
Still, many people these days adopt a different lifestyle where they have more access to higher education, enjoy job hopping or travel the world without parental responsibility.
Decades ago, people might have had children to fulfil their marriage. Values in life were attached to parenting or giving birth to a child. Nowadays it is quite different. "For certain groups of people, being parents might define the meaning of life. But for many more, living in a country where they are guaranteed equality and fair wealth distribution can fulfil lives, a standpoint that is also of great consequence," said Assoc Prof Sustarum.
He said that if Thailand can adjust its economic scale correlated with its shrinking population size, fears of lacking a big labour force or about falling productivity will diminish. "The country's economy will grow larger if citizen wellbeing is well taken care of."