Fertility rates currently average 2.07 across the Asian countries, fractionally below the level that ensures population replacement, but well above the OECD average of 1.68 (Table 3.1). The trend to fewer children has been going on since the late 1950s, but stopped around the turn of century on average. The fall in fertility rates reflected changes in individuals’ lifestyle preferences, in family formation, and in the constraints of everyday living, such as those driven by labour market insecurity, difficulties in finding suitable housing and unaffordable childcare.

Another effect might come from changes in women’s aspiration regarding partnership and childbearing norms, especially in countries such as Japan and Korea where there is a strong link between marriage and maternity. However, the childbearing patterns of unmarried men and women have also changed. For example, half or more of births now occur outside of marriage in France. The average proportion of births outside marriage in OECD countries is now one-third of the total.

Since 2000, the fertility rate has fallen by 0.66 on average across the Asian economies with only China and Hong Kong (China) showing slight increases over the last 20 years. Across the OECD there was only a decline of 0.07 but the starting point was at a much lower level.

This recent decrease in fertility rates is forecasted to continue in all the Asian economies, with the exception of Singapore which will see an increase from 1.00 to 1.19 between 2020 and 2040. By 2040 the average across all economies will be 1.73, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. For the OECD the average will decline to 1.61 by 2040, with a low of 1.08 in Korea, and only France among the countries listed being above 1.7.

However, forecast uncertainty is considerable, with the 20th percentile of probabilistic projections for the Asian economies average at only 1.18 and the 80th percentile above the replacement rate at 2.18 for 2060, with the 50th percentile at 1.66 (Figure 3.1). The OECD average is 1.62 with the 20th percentile at 1.12 and the 80th percentile at 2.13, just above the replacement rate.

Low fertility rates have wider social and economic consequences. The old-age to working-age ratio will increase sharply placing additional burdens on the working-age population to finance pay-as-you-go pensions and health care for older people. Moreover, the workforce will also age over time and so might be less adaptable to technological change.

The total fertility rate is the number of children that would be born to each woman if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and if the likelihood of her giving birth to children at each age was the currently prevailing age-specific fertility rate. It is generally computed by summing up the age-specific fertility rates defined over a five-year interval. A total fertility rate of 2.1 children per women – the replacement level – broadly ensures a stable population size, on the assumptions of no migration flows and unchanged mortality rates.

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