Is Hong Kong doomed to be a society of low birth rates and eventually declining population? Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz has put forward the hypothesis of a “low fertility trap” that illustrates the challenges we face. When fertility rates fall below a certain threshold, he says, it could be trapped at a level of around 1.2 children per woman, far below the replacement level of 2.1. This is not just due to the demographic transition of fewer marriages, but also the self-reinforcing changes in social attitudes towards family formation.
It is a trap because of the involuntary nature of such a possibly irreversible demographic regime change. As more people choose to have fewer children, young people growing up will begin to accept small family size as the norm. This in turn affects their future aspirations to have children.
In Hong Kong, surveys show that the ideal family size is 1.6 children (that is, the number of children families want to have), while the total fertility rate is around 1.2 (the children they actually have). If the city’s youth aspire to have even fewer children, ideal family size will fall further, and so will the fertility rate.
All high-income Asian economies, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, have a total fertility rate of about 1.2, lower than the average of 1.5 in the West, even though their governments have spent considerable resources in an attempt to raise fertility rates.
For example, the Korean government provides universal free childcare services to parents, and spent more than 61 trillion won (HK$424 billion) from 2011-2015, with little impact on improving women’s labour participation rate and fertility rate. It is going to spend another 108.4 trillion won from 2016-2020. The universal childcare service welcomes these initiatives as mitigating the pressure of raising families, but there is still little impact in raising fertility rates.
Taiwan has provided much support to families with more children, in the hope of reversing the fertility decline. Likewise, the Singaporean government has gone all out to promote marriage and fertility by offering affordable housing loans and other incentives.
Low fertility rates in these countries are not just due to financial considerations but some very practical issues, such as long working hours and gender inequality, such as the unequal burden on women of childrearing and housework. The unstable employment situation, expensive housing and high educational expenses are real barriers to bigger families.
In Singapore and South Korea, population policy committees are housed in the prime minister’s and president’s office, respectively, to reflect strong government commitment. Singapore treats its population policy as a priority in the national policy agenda. With a population about 2 million short of Hong Kong’s, and 30 per cent non-permanent residents, it is a matter of survival for Singapore to maintain a sizeable, quality population.
Compared with other advanced Asian economies – Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – Hong Kong has the lowest average ideal family size, of 1.6 children.
In Japan and Korea, the ideal is 2.4 and 2.2 children, respectively. Thus, even amid ultra-low fertility, the two-child norm is still very strong these countries, but appears to be eroding in Hong Kong.
In the latest survey by the Family Planning Association, about 28.4 per cent of respondents reported that their ideal number of children was zero, reflecting that nowadays in Hong Kong, a certain proportion of couples voluntarily choose to be child-free and live the DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle. About 40.4 per cent reported that their ideal parity was one, while only 29.4 per cent reported that their ideal parity was two.
So aspiration for family formation among our young people is not high, and the fertility intention is even lower. With expensive housing and job instability, Hong Kong has all the elements to remain in this low fertility trap for a long time.
On the other hand, we enjoy one of the longest life expectancies in the world. With the workforce expected to shrink from 2018, we do need to plan ahead to avert crisis.
Improving productivity and relying less on labour-intensive work should be the top priority. The relatively low labour costs have not provided the incentive for investing in technology to improve the working conditions for the three “D” work categories, namely, difficult, dirty and dangerous work. Further, replacement migration is not only an option but a real necessity, to maintain the quality of service and timeliness of completion of work.
Given the challenges, Hong Kong’s fertility rate of about 1.2 is unlikely to see much improvement anytime soon. The average duration between marriage and the first birth is also getting longer, to about three years now. Apparently, the gap between the ideal and reality is also growing larger.
There are too many barriers for women in Hong Kong to achieve the ideal family size, not least the financial burden of high housing prices and costs of a quality education.
If we can’t see an end to the low fertility trap, perhaps we need to adjust our mindset for living with a low-fertility society, and improve on education, skills and health to offset the population size deficit.
By making Hong Kong an attractive place, we still can attract the right people with the right skills to maintain the city’s sustainable development.
Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong