Business Matters

Don’t stop at 3, PDu30

I am glad to learn that at this writing, President Duterte has changed his mind about requiring Filipino couples to “stop at three.” The experiences in recent times of state leaders who implemented strict birth control programs have not been very positive. The late Singapore leader, Lee Kuan Yew, publicly acknowledged that it was a mistake for him to strictly implement a “stop at two” policy when he was prime minister. Thailand is suffering from premature aging because of an aggressive contraceptive campaign in the last century. Even for strictly economic reasons, a state-sponsored population control program is counterproductive.

According to Susan Yoshihara, coeditor of “Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics,” the global economy is languishing years after the 2008 global economic crisis because of fertility decline and demographic aging. Starting this year, the working-age populations of the major economies will decline for the first time since 1950, including Russia and China (still emerging markets). The share of people 65 and older will soar in the major economies, reducing the demand for durable goods produced in the developing economies. This will leave in doubt the prospects of the world’s next generation.


Japan is the worst hit by this demographic winter. One in five of Japan’s elderly are still employed, double the average for developed countries. Yet nearly one in four Japanese senior citizens lives below the poverty line, 40 percent more than in the overall population. There are very few young people who can take care of the elderly, so that a robot called “Pepper” helps with their healthcare needs. Even with a population of some 130 million and a per capita income of more than $40,000, domestic demand for most consumer goods is either stagnant or declining, making it difficult for the government to apply pump-priming measures. The so-called “arrows” of Abenomics ended in failure. The only “sunrise” industries are those marketing hearing aids, false teeth and adult diapers. Forget the fast-moving consumer goods of economies with younger populations.

Developed countries like Japan and those in Western Europe took almost a century to reach their present state of demographic decline. The factors behind this long-term trend are easy to define: industrialization, urbanization, late marriages, education of women, and more women joining the labor force. There was no aggressive state-sponsored population control program. In contrast, the countries today that are prematurely joining the ranks of aging populations, like China and Thailand, introduced birth control programs as a mistaken solution to mass poverty.

For example, China implemented three decades of state-enforced family planning. As Yoshihara reported, factories in China are now facing worker shortages, compounded by singletons leaving the workforce to tend to aging parents. Chinese wages have risen in double-digit percentages for a decade, causing corporations to seek cheaper labor elsewhere (as in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines). What was a “demographic dividend” in China just 30 years ago has become a “demographic drag.” One reason is that decades of killing baby girls in China, as in India, is “obliterating universal marriage, the underpinning of socioeconomic organization for centuries.” By 2150, there will be 186 single men for every 100 marriageable women in China, and 191 such men in India. Even if the sex ratio at birth corrected itself overnight, 21 percent of Chinese men and 15 percent of Indian men would still be unmarried at age 50.

Closer to home, what used to be called the Philippines’ “nonidentical twin,” Thailand, is also suffering from premature aging and labor shortage. Still a relatively poor country (with a per capita income of only slightly over $6,000), Thailand has a demographic profile that closely resembles Singapore (with a per capita income of over $40,000). According to the Thailand Development Research Institute, a continuous decline in deaths and fertility rates has led to Thailand becoming an aging society, and this would have an effect on economic growth. By 2030, one-fourth of the population will be over 65. It is well-known that this premature demographic winter is a result of very aggressive birth control programs that were implemented in the last century by governments influenced by US propaganda issuing from the notorious Kissinger secret report called the National Security Study Memorandum 200.

All these should be a warning to well-intentioned advocates of population control among the poor in the Philippines. The solution to mass poverty is not population control, which plants the seed of a contraceptive mentality that will backfire in the form of antichildren attitudes of future generations. We should exhaust all the possible positive approaches to eradicating poverty: eliminating corruption, investing in rural infrastructures, improving the quality of basic education for the poor, providing out-of-school youth with technical skills, establishing more rural health clinics, giving the poor in the rural areas access to potable water, conditional cash transfer programs for the poorest households, etc.

As married couples experience the results of the positive approaches to poverty and their incomes rise, natural causes will result in a decline in fertility to manageable levels. Since they will continue to have a positive attitude to having children, we can look forward to a reasonably high fertility rate that will not lead to the demographic winter that is now afflicting both developed and developing countries. As China and Thailand have demonstrated, it does not take long for a contraceptive culture to do economic harm on a country.

Bernardo M. Villegas ([email protected] asia) is senior vice president of the University of Asia and the Pacific.

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TAGS: birth control, China, family planning, Japan, Population, Rodrigo Duterte, Western Europe
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