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Governments Organize Matchmaking as Asia’s Birth Rates Fall

For Singapore citizen Kelly Ang, 25, who married a year ago, having a baby is not a top priority. The public relations professional, who works 11 hours a day, said she has no time to raise a family.

Yulia Yuwono | Flickr | Getty Images

"At the moment I think it is difficult if I were to hold my current job and have a child too," Ang said. "The work-life balance is something that would be a deterrent."

Ang is one of many young people across Asia whose decision to put off having children is worrying their governments. From Taiwan to Singapore, authorities are stepping in to organize speed dating and other matchmaking events in a desperate attempt to stem falling birth rates.

Asia's young population, once the envy of the Western world is growing old — fast — with both fertility and birth rates in some countries at all-time lows threatening to strip the region of its competitive edge.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Asia's most developed economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea were among the top six countries with the lowest fertility rates in the world this year.

Rising education levels, late marriages and long working hours among women have contributed to the fall in fertility rates across Asia.

Singapore has the lowest fertility rate among 222 nations, according to the World Factbook, with a woman expected to give birth to an average 0.78 children during her lifetime. In Japan, the rate of 1.39 has stayed around the same level for the past decade, while in China it is 1.55.

This compares to 2.06 children per woman in the United States and 1.91 in the U.K. According to the World Factbook, an average two children per woman is needed to maintain a population at its current level.

"Asia as a whole is aging for sure, and this poses two big strategic challenges," said Donghyun Park, senior economist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). "One is its negative impact on economic growth, and the other is the need to provide adequate income support for the large and growing elderly population."

Demographic Tax

Asia has long reaped the benefits of what is called a demographic dividend, or the positive effects of a youthful population in the form of a big labor force and high productivity, but that is changing fast.

"Asia's favorable demographic structure is set to fall. In fact in some countries, this demographic dividend is already turning into a tax," said Park.

Take the case of Japan, which has the largest number of people above the age of 65 in the world; these older people make up 25 percent of its 128 million-strong population. This is increasing the burden on its public finances as economic growth stagnates.

The most populous country in the world, China, with 1.3 billion people, is also aging fast; its 60-plus population is expected to account for more than a third of the total by 2050, according to the Boston Consulting Group and global reinsurer Swiss Re. This is putting pressure on Beijing to rethink its one-child policy started in 1979.

Governments Get Into the Act

Several Asian countries have come up with special programs and innovative ways of encouraging people to get married and have more kids.

In Singapore, for example, its Ministry of Community Development Youth and Sports has accredited 11 dating agencies; through initiatives like the Social Development Network it facilitates marriage via speed dating and salsa workshops.

In Taiwan, the central bank has started playing matchmaker by organizing get-to-know tours for public and private sector employees. These trips include sightseeing and speed dating events in upscale hotels, according to local media reports.

Several other Asian countries, such as Thailand, are considering measures like tax incentives and more affordable childcare services to encourage couples to have children.

Gavin W. Jones, Professor at the Asian Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, who was recently in Bangkok working on a population report for the Thai government, said authorities are trying to make their labor markets more "family friendly" via longer maternity leave and baby bonuses.

Even private companies are getting into the act. For example, Singapore's National Day celebrations in August grabbed international headlines after a three-minute advertisement launched by mint brand Mentos on its YouTube page urged citizens to do their "national duty" and make babies.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Global, the agency that created the Mentos campaign, said the ad had nothing to do with the government, but was the agency's own idea to bring attention to the problem of falling birth rates in a fun way.

The Younger Ones

While Asia is aging as a whole, there are some countries such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines that are bucking the trend with a growing youth population.

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Currently 60 percent of India's 1.2 billion people are under age 30, according to the United Nations. Its working-age population, between 15 and 64, will grow nearly 18 percent by 2020, compared with only 0.3 percent growth for China, according to Euromonitor International.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of Indonesia's 242 million people are under age 15, according to the World Bank; half of the Philippines' 95 million people are under age 20.

"The young ones such as India and Philippines — they're set to experience the demographic dividend for some time to come, a few more decades," said Park.

But high levels of illiteracy and unemployment are eating into some of this demographic dividend. Difficulties in building an industrial base and infrastructure deficiencies in countries like India and Indonesia could also get in the way of economic growth stemming from favorable demographics, say experts.

While some of these countries try to maximize the advantage of a youthful population, experts warn that Asia has to face that it is aging and come up with policy changes to combat it. From flexible immigration policies to extending retirement ages, Asian economies will have to tap into their older people to increase productivity.

"As the population ages, employers are going to turn more to older workers and leverage their experience, knowledge and skills, which are very valuable assets," said ADB's Park.

Robert Prior-Wandesforde, Director of Asia Economics at Credit Suisse, adds that this shift towards greater dependence on an older work force is inevitable and could lead to slower economic growth in the long-term. "In large part, a slowdown in trend growth is a fairly inevitable long-term implication. It has to be accepted. It's very hard to avoid."

- By CNBC's Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani.

Contact Aging in Asia