Ignoring the problem

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Ignoring the problem

The author is the deputy editor of the economic policy teamof the JoongAng Ilbo.

On Aug. 25, Statistics Korea released its 2020 birth statistics. There were 272,300 babies born last year, a 10 percent decrease from the previous year. The total fertility rate, referring to the average number of children a woman between the ages of 15 and 49 gives birth to, was 0.84, the lowest since 1970.

It is shocking, but not unexpected. The number of annual births was barely over 300,000 in 2019, and it was expected to fall further. The total fertility rate has been the lowest in the world — 198th among 198 countries in the UN Population Fund — for two years in a row.

The government’s response hasn’t changed. Offering more subsidies for having more children — such as free tuition for the third child and greater child subsidies — remains the same. As the birth rate goes down, subsidies go up.

But statistics show that policy direction hasn’t worked. According to Statistics Korea’s future population estimate, the productive population between 15 and 64 is to decrease from 37 million this year to 27.5 million in 2040 and 22.6 million in 2050. That means the number of people who can engage in economic activities and contribute to production falls by 500,000 a year on average.

To fill this gap, the total fertility rate should be boosted to 2 to 3, but that is totally unrealistic.

Let’s just say that the government came up with some clever ways to raise the fertility rate next year. Those babies need to be at least 20 or 30 before they can actually contribute to production and pay tax. There is no way to avoid the gap of 20 to 30 years as the production population drops and the economy falls.

So why is the government urging young people to get married and have children to boost the fertility rate when they are worried about finding a job or buying a home? A clear answer can be found from the book titled “Truth of Japan’s Deflation,” which found the cause of Japan’s economic collapse in the population issue. It claims that when an irrelevant story is mentioned, more people turn away from the real problem.

In the book, author Kosuke Motani wrote, “Why do you only focus on the fertility rate? Probably because you can transfer responsibility to the young women while letting older men with loud voices get to feel like bystanders. Perhaps, more women chose not to get married because there are only such men.”

The last ten years, which may have been the last chance to resolve the problem, were wasted while consecutive governments repeated absurd measures. It would have been better to have spent that time devising a crisis response plan to withstand the perfect storm that is set to hit the economy, education, healthcare, national defense and all other fields. But the game seems to be over already.
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