This Is What A Declining Birth Rate Actually Looks Like

Japan, not Jakarta, is struggling with an aging population.
May 10, 2017, 10:00am
An empty street in Tokyo. Photo by Flickr user CoCreatr/ Creative Commons License

It's 2065 and the elementary schools are closed, shuttered by the government after the number of school-aged children dropped to less than 10 percent of the population. The government promised to convert them to senior centers, providing care for the elderly in a country where nearly 40 percent of the people are 65 or older. But the funds have long run dry. With only 1.2 citizens employed for every senior, the tax base can't keep up with the demand for healthcare.


In 50 years, tens of millions of people vanished from the census as the country's population contracted, its cities and towns shrinking after decades of low birth rates made it impossible for the place to sustain its population. People were dying off faster than they were being born. It's a nation trapped in a population "death spiral."

It's a grim vision of the future that some experts warn could become reality in Japan if the country fails to raise its birth rate or allow for an influx of new immigrants. Singapore faces similar pressures, where the tiny city-state has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

Jakarta's incoming deputy governor Sandiaga Uno thinks the Indonesian capital is on the fast track to similar population woes. Sandi, as he is popularly known, has suggested that City Hall sponsor a series of singles mixers tied to what he dubbed the Kartu Jomblo Jakarta— a "singles card" that, for six months, would help the capital's singles pair up and settle down.

The idea quickly became a topic of ridicule online, eventually prompting everyone to say the whole thing was a joke. But, for a while, Sandi was doubling down on support for the program. The singles card was needed, he said, so Jakarta doesn't turn into the next Singapore or Japan.

"One of the concerns in big cities, not only in Asia but also around the world, is that of declining population because people are too busy," he told local media. "This can be seen in Singapore… we do not want to be like Japan or Singapore where the population is declining steadily because singles enjoy being single."


So is Jakarta (or Indonesia as a whole) in danger of a decline in birth rates?

Indonesia is, on the whole, one of the youngest countries in Asia. The nation, alongside the Philippines and India, is in the early stages of what the International Monetary Fund recently dubbed the "demographic dividend." The IMF found that countries in Asia had enjoyed decades of economic growth thanks to the benefits of a "'demographic dividend' [where] the number of workers grew faster than the number of dependents, providing a strong tailwind for growth."

Some countries, like Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia, are late dividend. Others, like China, Japan, and South Korea, are post dividend. These countries now risk "getting old before becoming rich," the IMF said in its regional economic outlook on Asia.

"Asia is undergoing a demographic transition marked by slowing population growth and aging," the report read. "This mainly reflects declining fertility rates since the late 1960s and to a lesser extent rising life expectancy. The population growth rate, already negative in Japan, is projected to fall to zero for Asia by 2050.

"The working-age population share is at its peak now and projected to decline over coming decades… East Asia, in particular, is projected to be the world's fastest-aging region in the coming decades, with its old-age dependency ratio roughly tripling by 2050."

But Indonesia is on the other side of that divide. The country's working-age population is expected to steadily rise in the coming decades as birth rates remain above the recommended rate of 2.1 births per fertile woman, the report read. This population, if managed correctly, could add 1 percentage point to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth annually, the IMF found.

By 2045, Indonesia's population is expected to total 323 million people (we're currently at around 255 million). The capital itself grew by 2 million people since the year 2000, and it's expected to double in size by 2020.

The central government is currently trying to slow population growth with a nationwide family planning program. Indonesian officials remain concerned that a rising population will further tax resources in a country already home to the most-populated island on Earth. Condoms, it seems, not singles mixers, are what the city really needs. But those programs rarely end well.