In international media coverage, the most common reason for bringing up demographics in relation to Taiwan is a theory about China. Some believe the country might be ramping up its rhetoric and military threats around Taiwan because its population has begun to both age and shrink, and thus it’s got only a narrow window of opportunity to secure unification before it’s relatively less powerful than it is now.
A less well discussed, parallel phenomenon is this: On the other side of that equation, Taiwan’s demographics look even worse.
Taiwan’s working-age population was recorded as falling for the first time in the 2021 census. 16.55 million people were found to be aged 15 to 64, a drop of 169,000 from the previous census in 2010. At the same time, Taiwan’s fertility rate has been steadily falling since 1967 (2.19 births per woman), sitting at just 0.95 births per woman in 2022, according to U.N. figures. Overall, based on medium-variant projections, the total number of dependents will be greater than the working-age population in Taiwan by 2060, according to its National Development Council.
And here’s the tricky thing: Despite some, such as David Goldman at the Asia Times, provocatively suggesting this situation might be a good thing — because Taiwan literally “fading away” would resolve tensions over its future — the current government in Taiwan have been offering solutions to the fertility rate for the last seven years. As did the previous government under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who introduced measures such as a six-month maternity leave policy with 60% of the paycheck for both parents after declaring the low fertility rate a national crisis. As have local governments.
But the situation hasn’t changed. According to Taiwan’s National Development Council, the total fertility rate “has been lower than 1.2 every year since 2003, except for the Year of the Dragon (2012).” That means, among other things, expanded child care subsidies, expanded fertility treatment subsidies, expanded affordable education subsidies and flexible, family-friendly working conditions have so far seemingly delivered less than a possible affinity for dragons. The projections still suggest a trend that will continue for decades.
So what’s the deal? Various studies suggest these kinds of policies correlate with increased birth rates, so why aren’t they working?
There are a couple of obvious explanations. On the one hand, likely the largest factor behind the fertility rate drop, the rapid speed of Taiwan’s economic development encouraging the entry of a large numbers of women into the workforce relatively suddenly (in cultural terms), has such a wide and deep range of implications, including for pregnancy plans, that understanding and adjusting to those trends is a complex and large scale task. Moving from a more patriarchal society to one dominated by capital accumulation and competition is a profound shift, and it might be more reasonable to expect that to be figured out in generations, rather than a couple of cycles of government.
On the other hand, more simply, the finances and the enforcement backing the pro-child policies remain relatively weak. Flexibility in working hours is often not taken up because workers lose pay and in many cases the government only checks if companies are enforcing the law if complaints are made. Meanwhile, Taiwan has minimum and median wages that are far lower relative to GDP and cost of living than neighboring countries South Korea and Japan, and parents with children under 2 being offered up to $5,000 New Taiwan dollars ($162) per month to help with public daycare fees, or $8,500 New Taiwan dollars ($277) for children attending “quasi-public” daycares or nurseries, don’t dramatically shift that dial.
I’d like to pitch another explanation to run alongside these, though, based on an anecdote from last week.
Speaking at the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation (CAPRI) 2023 Annual Forum last Monday, Taiwan Premier Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) set out his government’s approach to upping the birth rate. He listed some of the child care policies mentioned above and stressed the importance of creating more family-friendly workplace conditions with a better balance between work and family. Then, the former prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, used his closing speech to endorse that sentiment.
The problem was this. Earlier in the day, at the same event, quite different sentiment was offered from the employers in the room. Lynette Ng (吳詩婷), Director of Human Resources at TSMC’s Strategic Planning and Transformation Division, was asked a question about what she’s observed about worker talent in Taiwan, and she joked approvingly that “they work too hard, they play too little [and] they sleep too little.” With the audience laughing along, CAPRI’s chair referred back to the joke later when talking about her own staff’s hours of hard work in organizing the event.
What good is government policy, and even the law itself, if the ideas on the ground — employer culture — don’t line up? On the one hand you’ve got a government representative acknowledging that Taiwan is effectively doomed if people don’t have more children, and on the other you’ve got a room full of people in a place with the fourth-longest office hours in the world joking about the very same work culture that he’s saying has to be fixed.
An obvious thought is this: If the child care policies look as hollow on the ground as the offer on family-friendly work sounded here, it’s a good guess as to why they don’t seem to have had much effect yet. The implementation of laws is as much a part of their existence as their design. You might have a legal right to ask your employer for time off, but do you feel like you do?
It adds up. And for anyone who isn’t up for Taiwan “fading away,” it probably can’t afford to be a joke.