Monday, April 4, 2011

The Low Birthrate in Taiwan

Yeah, I know I've been faffing about recently with talks of caramels and pineapple cakes, but it was a busy week, I didn't get nearly enough sleep until the weekend and I had a headache that just wouldn't quit. So anyway.

I think the main reason why I've been putting off writing this post is because, honestly, a lot of the reasons why Taiwan has such a low birth rate are, as I see it, similar to why the marriage rate is declining. It's hard to talk about it without sounding a little repetitive. I do think, however, that there are some really obvious factors that the government, in its zeal to promote having children, is forgetting.

I should start out by saying that as far as I'm concerned, the declining birth rate is a good thing for Taiwan (as it would be for the world if it were a global phenomenon) - at least in the long run. Yes, in the next few decades it presents a problem as fewer and fewer young workers are around to support the elderly, but I feel like that's a jagged little pill we simply have to swallow to lower the population across the board, and not in a bat shit crazy Chinese "you can only have one baby!" way. The Earth can't handle many more people, we can't feed many more people, the skies can't handle the emissions from the power usage and transportation for many more people...if anything we need fewer people. In total. Globally. Taiwan is in an especially sensitive situation as it is truly running out of arable land, settleable land and resources (including clean water and the ability to develop new land in an ecologically safe way). The government is so guns-blazing pro-baby that it's not accounting for these issues, or for the fact that more children now means even more children to support them later, and eventually Taiwan is simply going to run out of space. The entire world is. (In other words, David Reid said it well).

All that aside, I thought I'd take a look at some of the reasons why the Taiwanese are not having babies - it's not because they're worried about the environment or overcrowding (although these are things that as citizens, they should be thinking about).

Aside from reasons that could also apply to the low marriage rate, there is one glaringly obvious point that needs to be made: most Taiwanese don't think they have enough money to comfortably raise a child or multiple children.

This is a developed-world phenomenon, not just a Taiwanese one, but it seems to be more pronounced in Taiwan, despite the fact that in terms of purchasing power and living standards, Taiwan now outranks Japan.

I'm not sure where to draw the line on how much this is an assertion driven by a culture that values humility and savings vs. how much it really is not financially feasible to have a lot of children, or any children, if you are Taiwanese.

In some cases, I think it really is an issue of thinking you don't have enough money when really, you'd make do just fine if you were to have a kid. Some sacrifices would be necessary, sure, but you wouldn't grow bankrupt. You see this a lot in the USA: we'll have a kid when we have a house big enough for a nursery, and can afford day care, and we're at good points in our careers and in a position to start a college fund.

It is absolutely true that if you really want to have a child, but you want to wait until conditions are "perfect", you never will. If you truly want it, you wait until you can reasonably pay for things like food, clothing, care and medical bills but not until you can afford a fancy crib in a dedicated nursery.

Of course, if you don't want a child, no amount of being ready will push you towards it, and that's fine too.

There is also the fact, though, that square footage in which to raise a kid is an expensive proposition in Taipei - I can see why a Taipei family would put off having children or have fewer children because they simply can't afford an apartment big enough to house them. My husband and I make a pretty good wage and yet I'd balk at the amount of money we'd have to pump into a mortgage if we were ever to buy property in Taipei, and that's for a modest one-bedroom.

On the other hand, it's much cheaper to have a baby in Taiwan than in the USA. Taiwan actually has a healthcare system that basically works, unlike the broken, unaffordable mess we have back home - prenatal, delivery, post-natal and pediatric care are all covered, though you'll have to pay more for electives (such as specialized birthing centers and 'mothers' hotels' in which to take your month of traditional maternity rest). Day care/kindy/nannies are cheaper than the US, but not exactly cheap. Baby-sitting is unheard of, but often you still pay little or nothing for the equivalent: having your in-laws watch your kids, which is far more common here.

Furthermore, the least economically advantaged people in Taiwan still seem to be having babies - rather like in the USA, it's the middle-to-upper classes who seem to be slowing down (no, I don't have any stats to back that up, just my own subjective observations)...so it may be more a case of "we don't have enough money to raise a child without making significant sacrifices" rather than "we simply don't have enough money to raise a child".

Which, hey, I'm not criticizing. You hear a lot of criticism of that view, with the assumption that you should be happy to sacrifice certain things to have a child. I'm not willing to sacrifice travel, and a relatively free lifestyle to have a child - at least not right now - so those folks'll get no judgment from me!

Yes, people with far less money had children just a few generations ago, but let's look at some of the differences that made that possible:

1.) Daughters were married off, not educated, and the expense of school and university for girls was not an issue;
2.) Property was not nearly as expensive and settlements not as densely packed;
3.) It wasn't considered a "given" that your kids would attend university or would need to get into the best high school;
4.) An agricultural-turning-to-industrial society still meant plenty of people in the countryside with space to raise their children;
5.) Kids simply had less than parents today feel are necessary: from learning English to computers to cram school;
6.) If you couldn't afford all your kids you'd often give your daughters away to be raised by others (seriously, that's what they did - "you can't have kids? Need a farm hand? I can't feed her - here ya go!") - my neighbor Old Fang complains bitterly about how this was done to her - "they didn't care about me because I was a girl. They just threw me away, gave me to someone else like I was nothing".
7.) Mothers generally did not work and if they did, they lived with the husband's family who would raise the children;
8.) If both spouses worked and didn't live near in-laws, the children would go live with their parents (this is still fairly common).

The government's financial bonuses for having children is aimed at this issue: I believe the bonus is NT $20,000 (which is in the hundreds, not thousands, US, but is not a shabby amount either). Many women's rights groups don't care for that initiative, however: "We're not vending machines into which you throw some coins in return for a baby" said one activist. "What women really want is a high-quality public day care system."

Which brings me to other points that are similar to the reasons why Taiwanese women are marrying in such low numbers.

When you marry in Taiwan, there are a whole heap of gender expectations pushed on you - if not from your husband than from society and especially in-laws, although it's considered acceptable for your husband to have those expectations, too. You do find yourself in the position that many married women in the USA had to deal with decades ago: working either because you wanted to or needed to, but not expected to be a breadwinner, and yet still expected to keep the house clean and the kids, if you had them yet, reared. Taiwanese women do have mothers and mothers-in-law to help with those things, but that's not always a good solution (I adore my in-laws but this is a sentiment that not many people seem to share with me in Taiwan). It means having to deal with your in-laws ideas about child-rearing, their expectations of your home and who should clean it, and if you don't care for them, having to live in the same apartment or neighborhood.

Is it any wonder that Taiwanese women, faced with the choices of "let mom-in-law watch the kids" (assuming she doesn't like her mother-in-law, which is quite sadly common here), "or take on most of the child-rearing because my husband isn't going to help, while either working or taking a hit to my career", would choose to have no children, or as few as possible?

I've heard that the average salary in Taiwan is NT$30,000 per month, but let's say this is a more middle-class couple and they each make NT $60,000/month (for which you have to be at least in middle management in this country and work punishing hours that are really out of proportion for what amounts to $2000 US). A good kindy/day care or nanny is going to cost NT $20,000-$30,000/month, which is 25% of the couple's combined pay. That is, honestly, way too much - whether in Taiwan or in the USA where the percentages are similar.

So I see where women are coming from when they say that they want good public day care. Either they're faced with a quarter of their income gone (assuming each spouse makes $60K, which is twice the average) or with one of them taking a hit to their career...and let's be honest, that's usually the wife, not the husband. How is that in any way fair - in America or Taiwan? Can you blame a couple for not wanting to deal with that?

Speaking of work and having children -

Taiwan has a more mother-friendly working world, at least in larger companies - there is mandated maternity leave (no such thing in the USA), taking a month off (坐月子) is common and expected, stronger family ties make it possible for most families with babies to have someone care for their child - usually but not always a mother-in-law - while the mothers go back to work, and in terms of purchasing power parity, getting a day nanny or sending your kid to nursery school is more affordable here than in the USA.

On the other hand, in smaller companies it is fairly common for prospective female job candidates to be grilled about - or not hired because - you may be taking time off to have children. Horribly long hours at work - hours that no Westerner would ever find acceptable - make it harder to spend time with children, and if you work in Taipei and your family lives somewhere else in Taiwan, you may be faced with having your child live with his/her grandparents until (s)he is ready to start school at age 7: something not every parent wants. Under those circumstances, would you really be keen to have children?

I still think it comes down to three things:

1.) the expense of living space and child care (if family watching kids is not an option) is too high for most couples: I can't count how many of my students have said that they don't take high speed rail because tickets for them and their children are too high, and how lucky I am that we can still take it as we're only paying for two. Or how many have said that they only have one child because they can't afford kindy or a larger apartment in which to raise two...or who have said that they have made so many sacrifices to raise one or two kids that another one is out of the question.


2.) Women sick of the gendered expectations heaped on them as wives and mothers - we've come a long way in terms of gender equality in Taiwan, but it's still the wife who is expected to bear the burden of household duties and child-rearing. It's the wife who is expected to quit her job if necessary, the wife who is expected to take hits to her career, and generally the wife who shoulders all of the burden. She has more support (family nearby) and more legal back-up (mandated maternity leave, a month-of-rest culture) but more expectations, too. I'm lucky to have a great husband who would do his share if we were to have a child and who is great at helping around the house - he's almost certainly better at housework than I am! Not many Taiwanese women can say the same, though.

3.) Taiwanese people, happy at their newfound, just-in-our-parents-lifetime prosperity, are enjoying life as citizens of a developed country and don't want to go back to the financial sacrifices necessary as a developing one: sacrifices that they'd have to make for children. This is similar to the USA, although we've been developed and "prosperous" for longer: now that all these young Taiwanese can afford to shop at Shinkong Mitsukoshi, go to spas and take four-day trips to Bali, Guam or Hong Kong, they don't want to give it up to pay for day care and school fees. I can honestly say that while I don't shop at Mitsukoshi and I get my massages at local 按摩 shops, that traveling is a heap of fun and I don't blame anyone for hesitating about giving it up. Many Taiwanese still remember how hard their parents worked to send them to college, and how their grandparents lived in drafty brick houses and either farmed or worked in factories. Do you blame them for wanting to enjoy a better life for awhile?

2 comments:

catherine_sr. said...

All three of those reasons are why I want to take my sweet time having kids (and I'm sure it would be the same if we were back in the US). We could afford one now, but it would mean sacrificing or cutting back on a lot of things. I have a great husband, too, but being the childbearing one would mean a lag in my career pacing, simply because I doubt I'd be able to keep up with the pace of my current reporting schedule while 8-9 months pregnant, recovering from childbirth and taking care of a newborn. And though I grew up in the US, my entire childhood was spent hearing things like "Your grandma had to feed 5 children without a fridge! We had no running water until I was your age! Our chicken was always fresh because we had to kill it ourselves! Enjoy life while you are young and unfettered with the responsibilities of raising a family, because it doesn't get any easier!" In other words, I never really had the hazy-eyed, dreamy view of "setting up house" or having children that some other people do. So I totally sympathize with Taiwanese people who aren't having kids for the three main reasons you cite.

Jenna said...

Hah! My family is happy that I've enjoyed my youth and seen the world but being newly married, is kind of pressuring us to procreate (I tried to get them to back off by saying that my in-laws certainly do that, and the reply was "well that's just how we Rs roll"- R being the first letter of that side's last name). Things like "Well when *I* was your age I had a lot less than you do and a lot fewer life experiences than you've had, and I had kids before 30 even though we didn't have any money, so you can have them too!"

I wouldn't leave my job to have kids- never say never, I know, but if one of us had to stay home I don't think I'd be the best choice, and I don't think that with our flexible jobs one of us *needs* to do it in the way that many others may be faced with that choice...not because I think that working is always or necessarily a better choice, in fact there is certainly a lot of joy in child-rearing that one can't get from a typical job - *if* that's what you want to do. I happen to love my career but yes, pregnancy, delivery and recovery would slow me down for awhile. I could get back into it - one of the joys of my career path is its flexibility - it's more that I just don't want to give up travel and Belgian beer nights...and I don't think I'd be very good at child-rearing (and don't want a kid strongly enough to find out). As I said, I don't even have time in my preferred life schedule to care for a dog...so...heh...yeah.

I could change my mind though. Maybe in five years I'll be all "OK I'm ready now". Maybe not. We'll see.

Either way, I too don't blame the Taiwanese for waiting or not having kids.