The Chief Executive claims that he has done everything he can to increase the birth rate. The reality is that 2022 saw the lowest number of births since 1985. Local academic says the trend is difficult to reverse and advises the Government to adapt to this trend by reviewing the role of the elderly in society
The number of newborn babies in Macau has been falling in recent years, from 6,529 in 2017 to 4,344 in 2022. The General Association of Women of Macau (AGMM) conducted a survey on local women’s intentions to have children in 2019 and 2022. In the 2022 survey, the association said that among the 900 women aged 18-49, “intentions have risen to a medium level, with those who are married with children having the highest intentions; however, it also found that women born in the 1990s had fewer intentions to have children. About 80 per cent of the women interviewed believe that work and the problems adjacent to raising children are the major causes for discouraging them; and 90 per cent of women believe that family-friendly policies are the best way to counteract this trend.”
“There is no way to reverse this trend”
The phenomenon is not unique to Macau. South Korea’s birth rate in 2022 was 0.78 (-0.03 than the previous year and the lowest since they began recording data in 1970).
South Korea’s population is expected to continue to decline as the birth rate falls and ageing continues. China’s population also went into decline last year, with the birth rate falling to below 1.1.
Speaking to PLATAFORMA, Professor Cai Tianji, from the Sociology Department of the University of Macau, points out that the decline in the birth rate is generally related to the economic environment. In other words, the higher the GDP of a region, or the higher the level of education and the labour force participation rate of women, the lower the birth rate. “To be honest, there is no way to reverse this trend. The government has adopted different measures such as maternity leave, paternity leave and childcare services, but not much has changed. In terms of birth rate, it is not only a matter of continuity for future generations, it is also a matter of opportunity cost.”
This issue was emphasised by Macau’s Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng himself at the Legislative Assembly plenary session last week, when he said that the Government has already done all it can to counteract the low birth rate. Deputy Wong Kit Cheng told our newspaper that the rate in Macau was not very high in 2003.
Twenty years later, these people are gradually entering the age of marriage, but as they represent only a limited proportion of the population, the birth rate may not increase significantly.
“We hope that after the epidemic, Macao’s economy will stabilise and the overall livelihood of the population will continue to develop. With the policies to encourage births, we expect the birth rate to increase gradually, but in reality, it may not increase in the short term. Next year is the Year of the Dragon, and we don’t rule out the ‘Dragon Baby effect’, but it may not be possible to achieve 7,000-8,000 births in one go (as happened in the last Year of the Dragon in 2012). I think there is hope for a recovery, but it may not be a significant increase,” he adds.
Adapting to an ageing society
With a declining birth rate, the old-age dependency ratio in 2022 has also grown from 21.5 per cent in 2021 to 23.1 per cent. This means that there are four people of working age for every elderly person.
Given this scenario, besides boosting the birth rate, one can bring in skilled foreign professionals to increase the population growth rate. However, Wong Kit Cheng says that there is a system of importing talent and if they arrive for the additional purpose of increasing population growth, some consideration will have to be made regarding the age of these professionals. Cai Tianji also believes that the introduction of talent will not only cause demographic changes, but will also impact the labour market. “I think immigration should only be done when it is acceptable to society.”
Cai Tianji points out that Macau’s low birth rate is difficult to reverse, but that an ageing population is not necessarily a bad thing. The academic recalls that in the past, society considered the age of 65 to be too advanced, but nowadays people are still healthy and can continue working, although the current economic and industrial structure has not yet adapted to this change.
As for the controversy in France over the government’s proposal to extend the retirement age, Cai points out that the retirement age of 65 was set before the Second World War and has since become almost an absolute limit, which needs to be properly examined between the government and society. The academic reiterates that it is not easy to increase the birth rate, and therefore the population has to adapt to ageing, “so that society feels that the elderly are not old at 65 and that they can still play a role, without necessarily retiring. Of course, this change will require a lot of work. Besides government facilitation, it will also imply changes in the insurance system, which may include many systemic issues, such as changes in the retirement system,” he concludes.