On Nov. 28, Japan’s top government spokesperson released the total number of babies born in Japan from January through September 2022, which was 599,636, 4.9% below the figure of last year, indicating that the number of births in all of 2022 might fall below the record low of 811,000 babies in 2021.
Japan has long recognized its declining birth rates as a concern, but none of the various measures initiated by many administrations in the past decades to encourage population growth have proved successful. The number of total births in Japan peaked in 1973 at about 2.1 million. It is projected to fall to 740,000 in 2040.
Given the longer life expectancy in modern economies, there is a lag between peak birth and peak population. Japan actually has one of the longest life expectancies in the world; therefore its population did not peak until around 2010 with 128.1 million people.
However, there is limited room humans can push in terms of life expectancy. Total birth numbers are a good leading indicator of the trajectory of a country’s population in the years to come.
There are many factors contributing to the declining population in Japan, including high living expenses, onerous commutes, slow increases in salaries, corporate culture incompatible with both parents working, and diverse pursuit of life purposes by younger generations other than raising children.
In addition, its strict immigration policy does not make it easy for foreigners to live and work in this country. To address challenges arising from its rapidly aging society, the Japanese government in recent years has been quietly loosening immigration rules to attract outsiders to join their workforce.
An aging and shrinking population has huge implications for a country, such as the supply of labor, social welfare, care taking of senior citizens, national security and other aspects of society. Hence governments around the world usually try to stimulate population growth in order to sustain prosperity and progress.
Japan is not alone in its fruitless efforts to buck the trend of shrinking population. There is a list of about 20 countries with negative population growth rates between 2015 and 2020 according to data from the United Nations. Interestingly, except for Venezuela (South America), Syria, and Japan (Asia), the countries on the list are all from Europe.
For those European countries, aside from low fertility and birth rates, high emigration rate is a huge factor for their declining populations. Wealthier and younger generations are increasingly immigrating to other European nations with better economic, social and political prospects.
Global population in general has been growing steadily, but there is a discrepancy between population growth in developed and developing nations. According to data from the United Nations, Europe and Northern America, as regions with advanced economies, have an average birth rate of 1.8. At the same time, regions with poor development levels, such as Northern Africa and Western Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa have much higher fertility rates of 2.9 and 4.6 respectively.
With the advancement of economy, countries will gradually experience declining birth rates, and their population will subsequently peak.
For the two most populous countries, India is estimated to reach its peak population of 1.65 billion around 2060, while China will reach its peak much earlier around 2030 at 1.46 billion. Experts have predicted that by the year 2100, the world population will eventually stabilize and stop increasing in size.
This is a good long-term prospect for the earth. Our precious blue planet has limited resources, and aggressive human economic activities have already caused immense challenges confronting everyone across the world, including global warming and increasingly frequent extreme weather phenomena.
In order to make the earth a more livable place, it is high time that we consumed available resources in a responsible and sustainable way. The importance of “reduce, reuse and recycle” cannot be overemphasized.
(The author is an independent financial investor.)