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Younger people in wealthier countries no longer feel that having children is fulfilling

Japan will plunge over economic and social cliff unless country reverses its population decline

I have highlighted before the problems caused by declining birth rates in various parts of the world, but these demographic chickens are now coming home to roost. Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida starkly announced in January to parliament: “Our country is on the brink of being unable to maintain the functions of society”. What Kishida means is that his country will plunge over an economic and social cliff unless Japan reverses its population decline.

World population now stands at 8 billion and increasing, but rate of increase is markedly slowing down. The current increase in world population is mainly driven by Africa where growth remains strong, although decreasing in rate.

In much of the remainder of the world birth rates are well below replacement rates. The median age of the world’s population today is 31 years, up from 24 in 1950. Median age will reach 42 years by 2100 when world population will peak at 10.4 billion and then decline.

A fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is necessary to maintain a steady population. Japan’s current fertility rate of 1.3 is about the same as China’s, and higher than Taiwan’s (1.0) and South Korea’s (0.8). It is only a little lower than traditionally Catholic countries Poland (1.39), Italy (1.47) and Ireland (1.6). Fertility rates average 1.67 across 37 OECD countries and world fertility rate is 2.43 (5.0 in 1950).


Japan’s population has been declining for years and it is now one of the fastest ageing countries on earth with over-65s accounting for almost 30 per cent of the population. In 1973, 2.09 million children were born, in 2022 less than 800,000. Empty classrooms are closing schools. If current trends continue Japan’s population will decline from 128 million in 2017 to 50 million in 2100.

Many younger people in wealthier countries today no longer feel that having/rearing children is a fulfilling life project.

Japan’s neighbour China also has demographic headaches. Throughout most of recorded history China boasted the largest population in the world. However, China will cede that distinction to India later this year. After 36 years of the infamous one-child-per-family policy China faces a population-deficit crisis. The Chinese Government now encourages families to have two or three children.

Many younger people in wealthier countries today no longer feel that having/rearing children is a fulfilling life project. Having children in Japan invites a heavy economic burden and is a powerful reason people are having fewer children. Education – grind schools and university tuition – is very expensive. Daily working hours are excessively long and family-unfriendly and young women fear that having children means having to end their careers to stay at home.

One big problem with a below-replacement birth rate is that the ratio of younger workers relative to elderly non-working citizens rapidly declines making it very difficult to run the economy and fund social services. Successive Japanese governments have shunned immigration as part of a solution to alleviate chronic labour shortages and strain on health and social security funding. Just 2 per cent of Japanese population is “foreign” compared to an average of 12 per cent in OECD countries. The answers to Japan’s demographic problems must therefore come from within.

The situation is stark. If the demographic situation is not righted Japan risks fading away into the background to history

Kishida said that reversing the demographic trend is a top priority for his administration. The plan is to spend lots of money to “create a children – first economy and society. Policies and children and childcare are the most effective investment for the future “. The State will provide an annual $592 to couples who have a child, additional to existing payments of $115 per month to every child up to the age of three and then an $80 allowance paid until the child graduates high school.

However it seems certain that much more incentive/effort will be required to significantly increase Japanese birth rates. Social infrastructure must be constructed to encourage people to feel secure enough to have children, including generous maternity/paternity leave, guarantees that having children will not negatively affect career prospects, generous mortgage terms to parents of young children, etc. According to OECD, the key determining factor in countries that have slightly reversed drooping fertility rates recently, was more equal sharing of household and parenting duties.

The situation is stark. If the demographic situation is not righted Japan risks fading away into the background to history. I have no doubt that Japan will successfully reverse its demographic decline. The Japanese are a proud people with a Samurai/Bushido warrior tradition. Fading away is not in Japanese nature.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of Biochemistry at UCC