Sat, July 13

The Economic and Social Factors Behind China’s Declining Fertility Rate

Current Fertility Rate Trends and Consequences

In the past decade, China’s lifetime childlessness rate for women has tripled, and this trend is only beginning. In 2015, only 6.1% of Chinese women remained childless throughout their lives. Now, this rate has exceeded 10%. While the rate of childlessness is increasing sharply among women, China’s fertility rate has plummeted, ranking second to last globally, only slightly above South Korea and even lower than Japan. If this declining trend continues without effective intervention, the future will inevitably feature aging before prosperity. The more productivity advances, the lower fertility rates become, a universal trend in human society. However, China’s fertility rate has declined too rapidly, even though it remains a developing country. With the population already decreasing by over 2 million annually, China’s situation could worsen significantly if it reaches developed-country status.

The rapid ageing and declining birth rates of the population can have serious consequences, as demonstrated by Japan. The Japanese government is now desperately seeking solutions, including large-scale immigration to address labour shortages. Will China also need to rely on large-scale immigration in the future just to maintain normal social functions? If so, that would be a sad outcome. The reluctance of Chinese young people to have children is a complex issue, but the primary reason is straightforward: raising children today is not worth the cost.

Economic Challenges of Raising Children

Raising children in China is currently too expensive. According to the 2024 China Child-Rearing Cost Report, in 2023, the cost of raising a child in China is 6.3 times the per capita GDP, the highest in the world. This figure doesn’t even include the additional costs that come with adulthood, like marriage expenses, dowries, housing, and business ventures. In today’s China, nurturing a child to become a qualified worker can cost several million yuan. What appears as a sweet and innocent child is essentially a walking money pit.

To earn and save money for their children, many couples work tirelessly, being extremely frugal. Countless women return to work immediately after maternity leave, avoiding buying new clothes or grooming themselves. Their online shopping records are filled with diapers, baby clothes, body lotion, and baby powder. Similarly, many men stop drinking, gaming, and attending social gatherings after having children, all to save money for their offspring.

Modern families typically have fewer children, and the traditional preference for sons has diminished. Every child is cherished, and many young fathers believe in providing generously for their daughters, often at a higher cost than for their sons. Raising just one child is difficult enough, so having two or three seems overwhelming. In many Chinese families, raising children is the most significant investment of a lifetime. While parents generally don’t see it as an investment and don’t expect returns, when studying childbirth as a social issue, it must be approached rationally, acknowledging the inherent financial aspect.

Changing Social Dynamics

Since raising children can be considered an investment, the return on investment becomes crucial. High returns attract people to invest, no matter the cost. In ancient agricultural societies, having children provided high returns. With limited transportation options, generations often stayed on the same land, working hard in the fields. Sons could start helping out on the farm by the age of eight or nine, and daughters could be married off by their teens. When parents grew old and could no longer work, their children would be around to care for them. The investment by ancestors for a decade or more would yield returns over several decades. As a result, ancient Chinese culture upheld the belief that having many children brought prosperity and failing to continue the family lineage was considered the greatest unfilial act.

In modern industrial societies, this logic has completely changed. No matter how much effort parents invest in raising children, they rarely receive any financial returns. If adult children don’t rely on their parents and bring some gifts home during the holidays, they’re considered good kids. As for elder care, it’s no longer something parents can count on. With convenient transportation, children often work in different provinces or even countries and may not visit their parents throughout the year. Without seeing each other regularly, providing care is impossible. No wonder many parents would rather have their grown children stay at home and rely on them than leave for opportunities elsewhere. At least when children are nearby, they can offer comfort and care when parents fall ill.

Given that the return on investment is close to zero, raising children results in greater losses with higher investment, fewer losses with lower investment, and no losses without investment. Having more children does not bring prosperity, only financial burdens. No one would willingly engage in such a guaranteed losing proposition. Although raising children is not solely an economic consideration, financial factors cannot be ignored. Without factoring in these costs, relying solely on parental instincts of love won’t improve the fertility rate.

Solutions for Addressing Declining Fertility Rate

So, how can this issue be resolved? The decline in China’s fertility rate is a complex problem that requires a collective effort to address. Potential solutions include reducing dowry expectations, lowering housing prices, cutting child-rearing costs, and properly managing elder care. However, another long-ignored issue also needs attention. For decades, China has focused on economic development, prioritizing money and dismissing traditional values like filial piety, which many see as outdated or even feudal. If parents who raise children with great effort receive no financial or emotional support in return, young people notice this, and over time, they become less inclined to have children themselves. Without the younger generation, who will drive social development or care for the elderly in the future?