Author: James C. T. Hsueh, National Taiwan University
Like most Western industrialised countries, Taiwan experienced a sustained decline in fertility rates and increased life expectancy that together resulted in population ageing. But due to the fast fertility decline in recent decades, the pace of aging has been continuously accelerating — Taiwan became an ‘ageing society’ in 1993, an ‘aged society’ in 2018 and will become a ‘super-aged’ society in 2025.
In Taiwan, the total fertility rate (TFR) — which measures the number of children born per woman during her lifetime — sharply declined from seven births in 1951 to 0.975 births in 2021. Meanwhile, the share of the population aged above 65 increased from 2.5 per cent in the 1950s to 17.56 per cent in 2021. According to the Ministry of the Interior, life expectancy at birth increased from 53.4 years for males and 56.3 years for females in 1951 to 77.7 years and 84.3 years in 2021 correspondingly.
According to projections by the National Development Council, Taiwan will become one of the oldest countries in the world in 2060 when the share of the elderly is likely to reach 41.4 per cent of the population. The decline in Taiwanese fertility since the 1950s was more rapid than most countries in the world and the pace of Taiwanese ageing in the first half of the 21st century will be among the fastest ever seen.
The decline in fertility in Taiwan between the 1960s and the 1990s was primarily a result of mortality decline, family planning, industrialisation, economic growth and associated changes in values and lifestyles.
Taiwan’s TFR continued to drop as the government, considering the high population density, hesitated to prioritise pro-natalist policies. The 1992 government Policy Guidelines focused on issues of ageing and social welfare. After Taiwan’s TFR dropped to 1.24 in 2003, the Population Policy Guidelines were revised in 2006 with a greater emphasis on gender equity and environmental sustainability.
Despite declining fertility trends, Taiwan’s fertility rates briefly recuperated in the early 2010s due to the implementation of pro-natalist measures after 2010 and the Year of the Dragon in 2012. In Taiwan, babies born during the Year of the Dragon are said to be destined for ‘prosperity’.
Soon after the Kuomintang (KMT) came into power in 2008, the global financial crisis hit and strongly impacted Taiwan’s economy. Coinciding with the Year of the Tiger, which symbolises fierceness according to tradition, the KMT government noticed that historically low fertility might occur in 2010 and that the Taiwanese population would soon shift to negative growth. Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou approved a pro-natalist policy and highlighted that ‘childlessness is a national crisis’.
Several pro-natalist measures to help families were provided or enhanced by the government in subsequent years, including child allowances, a childcare system, parental leave with payment and tax incentives for rearing young children. The TFR rebounded from 0.9 in 2010 to 1.27 in 2012 with an increase in marriage rates for these years.
Between 2011 and 2015, the average number of births each year was 210,000, representing the first population plateau in the 21st century in Taiwan. In 2022, the Ministry of the Interior recorded a historical low of 138,986 births and the population’s natural increase rate was -2.93 per thousand — the third year of negative growth.
Population ageing, caused by declining birth rates and increasing life spans, can only be decelerated by boosting fertility. But in a society like Taiwan, with young people pursuing freedom and individual values imported from the West, declining fertility seems difficult to reverse. Taiwan will likely fall into a ‘low fertility trap’. The situation will be worsened by the increasing cost of housing, education, nursing, care and low wages with long working hours.
Without the constraints of traditional family values and religious beliefs, young Taiwanese became more individualistic and fertility and marriage rates kept dropping. They have continued to decline under more progressive pro-natalist measures introduced by the Democratic Progressive Party government since 2018. Such measures aimed to increase the parental leave payment rate from 60 to 80 per cent of their monthly insurance salary, provide NT$5000 (US$164) in child allowance for new parents each month and more subsidies for fertility treatments.
Over the past 30 years in Taiwan, declining marriage rates have also contributed to declining fertility. Because of low extramarital birth rates (less than 4 per cent), fertility will drop even further under the current trend of fewer marriages.
People born between 1950s and 1970s tend to view marriage and childbearing as a responsibility and aspiration. In contrast, younger generations often see marriage and childbearing as an economic burden and a hindrance to their careers. The key to recuperating fertility is not solely dependent on monetary incentives but on social and conceptual issues — to rebuild the value of marriage and the family.
James C. T. Hsueh is a former professor in the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University and a former minister without portfolio in the Taiwanese government (ROC).