Factors Underlying the Worldwide Decline in East-Asian Fertility

Some of you might have recently heard that the Chinese government in considering changes to its one child policy. While many see this as a reasonable attempt to reverse the demographic decline, a few commentators have expressed doubts about whether such a change would have any effect on the willingness of the Chinese to have more children. They point out that ethnically and culturally similar neighboring countries have fertility very similar to those in China, even though they lack an official one-child policy. If anything, China has a slightly higher fertility rate (1.6) than more affluent east-asian countries such as South Korea (1.2), Japan (1.4) and Taiwan (1.1). Even many culturally similar but not that affluent countries in the region have pretty low fertility rates; Vietnam (1.8), Thailand (1.6). Only the war-ravaged, poor or extra-religious countries (Laos, Cambodia, Philippines and Malaysia) in East-Asia have fertility rates above 2.

So what is going on? Why do so many east-Asian countries have such low fertility-rates in the modern era? Was it always so? When did it start to change and why?

Conventional explanations for this phenomena have tried to spin this low fertility rate as evidence of East-Asian intelligence, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness or degree of investment in their offspring. There is however a very big problem with any such “positive” explanations for this precipitous drop in fertility in that region. For almost all of recorded history, fertility rates in East Asia were freakishly high. Furthermore the general living conditions, levels of over-crowding, frequency of food shortages and mortality from infectious diseases etc were much bigger problems in the past than they are today.

Any hypothesis based on the idea that East-Asians are devoted parents would have a hard time explaining why so many of them are having no children or just one token child. But aren’t we all told that East-Asian parents are very devoted to the welfare of their kids and deeply involved in the lives- maybe a bit too deeply? Why would a socio-cultural-ethnic grouping with such a strong tradition of having children and raising them “properly” stop having them at the very time in human history when doing so has become very easy and safe?

Even more curious than the low-fertility rates of East-Asians in modern times is a look at what factors are associated with having the least number of kids. Other than higher levels of education, it is wealth and status that are associated with few or no kids. While this correlation has been previously observed in other developed countries, it is especially striking in East-Asian countries where the combination of a first-world lifestyle and high levels of education almost always translate into one or no kids. So what else can explain the precipitous drop in fertility rates in East-Asia in the last 60-70 years? Why haven’t the rates stabilized or recovered to levels of around 2- even in countries which have enjoyed reasonable economic stability? Why are economic incentives so ineffective at getting them to have more kids?

There is another way to look at this issue. However taking that route involves killing many ideological ‘holy’ cows and beliefs about what human beings are and are not.

Most of us want to believe that human beings are fundamentally intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable, capable of objective thought and largely rational in their actions. However a brief reading of human history or even short interactions with a few people around you will show that it is not the case. I could write entire books on why the self-image of human beings is so at odds with reality, but that is something for another day. For the purpose of this post, let us concentrate on the effects of such self-delusion on humans and the societies they live in.

While most human beings want to have children of their own, the mix of reasons and beliefs that drive them to have kids is sensitive to their circumstances and true motivations. People who used to live as hunter-gatherers or in small agriculture-based communities wanted kids for company, help, status and future care. Since accumulation of money was either absent or irrelevant in such communities, their motivations for having and caring for kids were not tainted by such extraneous considerations.

“Civilization” changed that.. Large scale agriculture, even in the pre-industrial era, created highly hierarchical societies which depended on a constant supply of naive and disposable workers who could be conned into working hard with the promise of a better future. While slaves and indentured laborers were one option, having more children was a much better option. It is not an exaggeration to say that people who belong to long-lived civilizations are far more likely to see other humans, but especially their own kids, as the principal means of improve their monetary and social status regardless of the cost of such behavior on their kids.

A lot of the ‘peculiarities’ in East-Asian parenting styles make sense if you are willing to consider the possibility that the relationship between parents and their children in those cultures is far closer to an employer and their employees.

The ‘tough love’, striving for higher productivity and ‘quantifiable’ achievement at all costs, enforced conformity and obedience, unspoken rules and protocols in everyday behavior that seem to characterize relationships between East-Asian parents and their children are exactly the things you expect in work relationships. This commercialization of the parent-child relationship is however not without its drawbacks and problems. For one, it creates damaged and very unhappy human beings who require constant threats and external pressures to behave “properly”.

The system worked for as long as it did because of the lack of effective contraception. The introduction and spread of effective contraception made it easier for unhappy and dysfunctional people to avoid having children. Also women can now make decent money by working and can thus achieve all of their material goals without the inconvenience of having kids. Since East-Asians, more than any other group, have seen kids principally as a means to attain their own material goals- it stands to reason that they would have far fewer kids if other (and easier) avenues to reach those goals were available.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. Matt Strictland
    March 17, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    It makes sense. People who are motivated strongly by religious memes are of course the outliers. The Philippines is one of those places though they are just starting to kick off the ideological stranglehold the Catholic Church has on their society and birth control is starting to spread.

    This combined with the effects of lowered remittance payments do the almost certainly permanent global downturn will probably create strong population decline momentum.

  2. IamMarktoo
    March 18, 2013 at 5:39 am

    Families have split from the traditional nucleus. I notice when they talk about high migration it is from with in the borders of China. Causes big impacts on local communities and families are separated by vast distances.

  3. P Ray
    March 18, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    2 other things are behind the decline in East Asian fertility:
    1. Women would like to stop working once they have “caught” a man. In these times of equality many men realise women want a guy who earns for 2 so that she can “maintain her lifestyle” while he overworks himself to “prove his love for her”(likely a washed-up hoe trying to cash in on a clueless beta, who is constantly told: Thinking what a woman brings into a relationship is patriarchal oppression! But especially if she’s had more pricks than a cactus farmer, has a kid, STDs, mental issues, student loans and debt to pay off!)

    2. I’ve heard stories from friends, who, on asking for dates with Asian women, are told “If you want to date me you must contribute USD1,000 monthly to my house payments, as I only date men serious about me”. Most women contribute towards poor health in men by asking them to live up to romance novel lead male characters (death by overwork and office politics), while looking nothing like porn stars themselves. Apparently many men accept such misandry as normal … but average guys are starting to wake up, hence they too are asking for the sex before marriage for the woman to “prove her love to him”.
    Because women are facing the prospect of the gravy train stopping, you see the wide variety of “man up” articles … even in Asian countries.
    Basically, sluts want the beta guy to pay for what the Alphas got for free;
    Alphas want the beta guys to stop the sluts that they no longer have a use for from cockblocking them;
    Beta guys are waking up to their true value and slowly “pumping and dumping” women with romance fantasies … as they were never wanted by most women except as a fallback position when she could no longer attract the Alphas.
    It’s interesting times we live in.
    Also, ugly or beautiful … the average guy is still dealing with a woman. Most likely one that overestimates her looks and underplays the contribution guys make to her life.

  4. Dreamer
    March 19, 2013 at 7:01 am

    I do want to point out that Vietnam just went through a giant baby boom. After the war ended and the Doi Moi reforms arrived, Vietnam went from a nation of 45 million to nearly 90 million with an average age of 27. It part of why the memory of the war and separation lingers relatively little and tend to be more optimistic.

    I don’t know how much matters into your theory. Just that that 1.8 is very recent.

  5. dwc
    March 19, 2013 at 11:11 am

    My maternal grandparents have seven kids. Yes, they depended on farming and nearby forests. In summer, they used to get timber from the forests to sell to the public. The other reason for having a large family is to not depend on others for many things: protecting their own family; helping each other (like when going to forest to cut wood–its better to have your own brothers); and muscular power in that village.

    Now my uncles have at most two kids. And these kids don’t do farming; in fact, my uncles wanted them to study and get a white collar job in India (like IT, or govt job). Once you move to these kinds of jobs, the standard of the living and the cost of living forces them to have less kids.

    Having 7 kids in a town is a different ball game: studies, means to support their studies. My uncles are not educated; so, they depended on the hard work of tilling the land, cutting trees in forests for wood, etc. Everyone depending on farming wants to get out of that field for white collar jobs; then moving to towns n cities. Here, the real rat race starts. Once you move people out of substistence farming/living, they will care about the standard of living and achieving dreams from kids.

    In an agraian society, parents do not need to fight for getting a labor job for their kids. In other words, continuity of whatever they do on farms is guaranteed to their kids.

    Imagaine a doctor living in a town and his struggle to pass down that lucrative job to his kids. And see the competition to get a seat in medical school, etc. If you have 7 kids, how can a professional guarantee that his job can be passed down to his kids, unlike the scenario in agrarian societies.

    The so-called American dream is the same. Look at the game of immigrants play in the states: parents want better jobs for their kids than they have. An IT guy wants his son to become a doctor. A physician wants his kid to be a wall street banker. A wall street banker wants his son admitted to harvard business school, etc. This kind of struggle did not exist for people in agrarian society: manual labor all that mattered with some intelligence to deal with fellow villagers.

    Other thing I have noticed about many billionaires is that they have 5 to 6 kids. For billionaires, even if their kids are stupids, these kids are accepted by Harvard, Yale, Princeton admission committes to join those schools. If one is a billionaire, he does not to worry about the rat race. It is about the so-called middle class: physicians, dentists, lawyers, managers, software engineers.. The latter set is playing the game to pass down the same financial security to their kids.

    • P Ray
      March 19, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      You’re missing part of the picture:
      People good at manual labour with the proper licensing and keen prices …
      become authorities in their field, and can tell their customers: “If you cannot wait for me to deal with your problem, please see someone else who will charge you twice as much, without my qualifications, to do the job”.
      They still get and keep their old customers.
      In other words, do something well enough – any job – and you can “fire your clients” if they won’t be reasonable with you.
      High-level business talks worth millions and billions, beautiful/underaged prostitutes can swing the contracts. And there’s a fair amount of politics involved too. So that type of business is quite volatile and unsafe.

  6. March 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    advipoops crapststerpants-acoli…

    do you have any kids, or should I say oopsies where the prostitute forgot to abort?

    do you “raw dawg” it like roosh (even though most of his “lays” are with dudes)?

  7. Matt Strictland
    March 20, 2013 at 10:42 am

    P Ray :
    You’re missing part of the picture:
    People good at manual labour with the proper licensing and keen prices …
    become authorities in their field, and can tell their customers: “If you cannot wait for me to deal with your problem, please see someone else who will charge you twice as much, without my qualifications, to do the job”.
    They still get and keep their old customers.
    In other words, do something well enough – any job – and you can “fire your clients” if they won’t be reasonable with you.


    The old “cartel” and “guild” systems to pump up wages are time limited in this world. The Internet makes it a lot harder to hide information to increase its value (many of these tasks are dead easy with a little time and money) and makes labor arbitrage easy. Also we aren’t that long from full scale automation and there being no reason not to use a robot for pretty much every task that can’t be done cheaper. Bots and computers can diagnose illness, do fast food right now and in time will do much more.

    At that point we either embrace some kind of social credit, allow civilization to end for all but the machine owners (and hope the war machines can protect them from the former middle classes rage) or have a mass extermination of the poor, well alright the 80+% of the population who are superfluous either through marginally voluntary means (the current birth dearth) coercive ones (birth control implant and no kids or no social credit) or just with some terminator scenario.

    In the end I suspect we’ll end up back at tribes and clans and families designed around localized low surplus production, maybe using high tech means (produce only enough for replacements and a small commons) In other words, back to the way we’ve always done it.

    • P Ray
      March 20, 2013 at 10:56 pm

      You’ve missed something:
      The reason people get qualified help, is for liability and legal reasons.
      You would not be able to get insurance to help with surgery if it was done by a mechanic.
      Or car repairs by a doctor.

      Sure, people may do both … but such people, are not covered by insurance when things go wrong.

      And when it comes to companies and big business – that is why they hire credentialed people (And then squeal that they are “not qualified” to drive down prices, nevermind the situation that oftentimes … managers cannot perform in the same role as the workers, because they’re simply unqualified).

  8. Jason
    March 31, 2013 at 11:56 am

    A lot of the ‘peculiarities’ in East-Asian parenting styles make sense if you are willing to consider the possibility that the relationship between parents and their children in those cultures is far closer to an employer and their employees.


  1. August 27, 2013 at 6:30 pm
  2. February 12, 2014 at 6:24 pm
  3. June 25, 2021 at 9:37 pm

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