National Edition

Single for life? The social costs of fewer families

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2 2013 6:00 a.m. MST

In Asia, where out-of-wedlock births are almost unheard of, no marriage essentially means no children. Birth rates are plummeting throughout Asia, and in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, rates have fallen well below replacement levels.

Kotkin's recent report on post-familialism, published by the Civil Service College in Singapore, focuses heavily on Singapore and on other Asian societies. Throughout the Far East, Kotkin finds, rampant modernism has collided with and subdued Confucian filial values, which emphasize tight family and intergenerational loyalty.

This collision is most jarring for women caught between the home and the workplace. Increasing respect in professional life clashes with lingering sexism, as women now highly valued at work find patriarchy still dominant at home, said Valerie Hudson, professor of public policy at Texas A&M and an expert on gender issues in Chinese culture.

"Men taught women that marriage was on men's terms," Hudson said, "and women learned the lesson that men taught them, and now that they have a choice, they are not interested in this male version of marriage."

Wilcox agrees. "There has been a huge shift in equality in the work sphere in East Asia, but that equality has not caught up on in the family sphere," he said.

In Taiwan, Kotkin's report notes, 30 percent of women between 30 and 34 are single. Thirty years ago, only 2 percent were. And in a 2011 poll of Taiwanese women under 50, he writes, "a huge majority claimed they did not want children."

Single in Singapore

In desperation, Singapore has shifted from an informal two-child policy in the 1970s to now offering cash premiums for children, which jump substantially upward for the third and fourth child. The official policy now encourages "three, or more if you can afford it."

"In Singapore," Wolfgang Lutz has noted, "women work an average of 53 hours a week. Of course they are not going to have children. They don't have the time."

Lutz came up with a widely noted metric holding that when a country's fertility holds steady below 1.5, a handful of structural, economic and cultural factors conspire to prevent the rate from recovering to replacement levels.

Singapore, along with Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and, of course, Japan, are all currently below Lutz's non-recovery tipping point.

"I was talking to a Singaporean woman who was very sharp," Kotkin said, "who told me, 'Look, if my company said to me tomorrow that I had to go to Shanghai for three months, I could do it. If I had children, I couldn't do it."

Kotkin also described a conversation at Singapore's Ministry of Population where he naively asked if they have a problem with people choosing not to have kids.

"No, you don't get it," he was told. "They don't even date."

Long-term burdens

One difficulty, Kotkin and his colleagues argue, is that although modern societies maintain a myth that the working generation is saving for its old age, in fact the burden falls heavily on their children. If today's generation does not produce enough children, a skewed "dependency ratio" emerges.

"Among the 23 most developed countries," write Kotkin and his colleagues, "the population 65 or older was roughly 9 percent in 1960; it is 16 percent today. By 2030, this could reach as high as 25 percent. Many countries, notably Germany and Singapore, by 2050 will have about 57 people over 65 for every 100 workers."

The burden is already immense. "In the United States, persons 65 and over received 7 times more in federal spending in 2000 per person than did children under age 18," noted demographer Philip Longman of the New America Foundation in 2004, "and this was before they enacted the hugely costly prescription drug benefit for seniors." Even factoring in education spending at the local level, total government spending favors seniors by roughly 3-to-1.

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