The demographic situation in Taiwan is alarming: with the lowest birth rates in the world, the sale of pets has experienced a boom.
A recent article by Nicola Smith and Chi Hui Lin published in British newspaper The Telegraph on 22 February, 2022, warns of the demographic situation in Taiwan, which, although it has lived for a long time with the terrifying prospect of an invasion by neighboring China, is experiencing one of the greatest threats to its economic security and the prosperity of its society: having the lowest birth rates in the world.
Statistics published by the Ministry of the Interior last January showed that the Taiwanese population had declined for the second consecutive year in 2021, to a level not seen since 2013.
Although emigration and the pandemic may have influenced this decline, a significant factor is that the 183,732 deaths on the island far exceeded the 153,820 births.
Taiwan, along with South Korea and Japan, has for years remained at the bottom of global fertility charts, ranking last in 2021 among 227 countries and regions recorded by the US Central Intelligence Agency, with only 1.07 births per woman, far short of the 2.1 needed to support generational replacement.
At current rates, the National Development Council, Taiwan’s national policy-planning agency, predicts that those over 65 could make up 30% of the entire population by 2040, plummeting to fewer than 20 million by 2052, raising the burden on pension and healthcare systems and creating workforce shortages.
More pets than children
In parallel with this phenomenon, the sale of pets and related accessories has experienced a boom.
In September 2020, analysts estimated that the number of household pets — around 3 million — had surpassed the number of children under the age of 15. Sales of pet accessories have skyrocketed, and now in the streets of Taipei, a pram is more likely to carry a dog than a child.
Lin Ching Yi, a gynecologist and member of Taiwan’s parliament, told The Telegraph she believes that “[…] we cannot reverse the situation, we can only stop it from getting worse… it’s impossible in Taiwan to have any policy to encourage women to have on average two or three children”.
She also says that there are deep-rooted cultural reasons why young, educated women with good jobs reject the idea of marriage and children.
A 2019 survey of women aged 15 to 64 by the Taiwan Ministry of Health and Welfare revealed that 38.6% of women said they were not interested in marriage, compared with 12.4% in 2011, Nikkei Asia reported.
Since the mid-1990s, the government has proposed the solution of “migrant brides” from China or other Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia and Malaysia, encouraging them to marry local men and start families, although this measure does not seem to have borne the expected fruit.
Ms. Lin said that younger generations are being asked to combine their working life with having children to support the country, but she believes that the elderly could still keep their jobs and take care of themselves, instead of being told that the government will give them welfare and support.
The growing societal context in developed countries, based on the production of economic wealth, casts its shadow over the institution of the family, a natural place of welcome and support through life. With marriage, mutual self-giving and the education of children devalued in favor of job performance and promotion of the individual and their personal enrichment, the figure of the family has become blurred in developed countries, which are replacing children with pets and households shared by single people, the “singles” that also extend across Europe. Their choice of solitude not only affects societal aging by increasing the demographic pressure it causes, but this isolation also increases depression and suicide rates to alarming levels. This was shown years ago in a study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, which identified isolation, lack of social support, not being able to communicate with another person and adverse or stressful personal circumstances, as the main causes of suicide in the population analysis. The study included 12,500 subjects from the UK, Ireland, Spain, Norway and Finland. Among the British and Norwegian, suicidal ideation was reported by 7.4% of respondents, while these figures were 14.6% for Ireland and 2.3% for Spain.
Education based on the possession of goods and comfort as a life choice is behind these sociodemographic changes that threaten the future of developed countries. Blaming the price of housing, economic precariousness or the work involved in raising and educating children, for the falling birth rates in the first world, is to miss the point, because they represent only a part — and not the most important part — of the problem.
Conveying to new generations the value of the family, as a school for the mutual relationship and self-giving that occurs in it, may be the way to provide values that allow people to “be for others”, in addition to promotion through governments and institutions of subsidies for childcare, including those that reconcile work and family life.
Meanwhile, we watch how, tragically, this need to “be for others” is unsuccessfully satisfied by owning pets, a caricature of the human relationship that we all yearn for from the depths of our humanity.
Bioethics Observatory – Institute of Life Sciences
Catholic University of Valencia