JAPAN has known for the past five years the most serious threat to the nation: population free-fall. In the year to 31 March, just 1,129,239 babies were born, the lowest figure since statistics were first compiled in 1968. In the same period, those 65 or over accounted for a record high, 19.24 per cent, of Japan’s near 127 million people.
In 2003, the government said it planned to spend more than Y1 trillion (50 million) on trying to arrest the alarming slide in the birth rate.
The money is being used to encourage people to have more children and for projects to assist that aim.
In 2000, car-maker Daihatsu teamed up with the city of Ikeda to offer residents Y200,000 (1,000), plus free use of a car for a year, to have a fourth child - but the anticipated patter of tiny feet failed to materialise.
Moves are also afoot to make it easier for immigrants to settle in what has traditionally been a fairly closed country, but what the government really needs is young women to stop shunning the role of wife and mother. The biggest single cause of declining birth rate is the growing number of people opting to stay single well into their 30s.
Men and women are marrying later and having just one or two children.
Japanese women now have an average of 1.34 children, one of the lowest rates in the world, well below the 2.08 needed to replenish the population. The cost of supporting a child from birth through graduation from university is put at around Y15 million (95,000).
JULIAN RYALL IN TOKYO
GERMANY’S declining birth rate and ageing population were the catalyst for welfare reforms that continue to divide the country. The facts are plain: a third of its 82.4 million citizens are near retirement age, the birth rate in the former communist east is officially the lowest in the world.
The average state pension is double what it is in the UK, and the government woke up this year to the prospect of its greying population putting an unbearable strain on public finances. Pensions have been frozen for the first time, and there are moves to shift the cost of provision further into the private sector. Benefits are being cut and people are having to pay more for healthcare.
Germany’s combined bill for pensions, healthcare and other benefit programmes for the elderly is set to rise to roughly 26 per cent of GDP by 2040, from 15.1 per cent today. A full-time worker retires with a benefit that replaces 70 per cent of pay, far above the 40 per cent replacement rate in the US.
With a birth rate of 8.45 per 1,000 people, down from 9.35 in 2000, there will no longer be the workforce around by the middle of this century to keep the welfare state afloat. The German mindset is that a woman’s place is at home and there are tax and benefit breaks to have families. For every child, there is a payment of 80 a month and couples with two children are in a lower tax bracket.
ALLAN HALL IN BERLIN
ITALY’S birth rate has been declining over the past 25 years. Gone are the days of families having five or more children. Today, you are more likely to see just one; the birth rate of 1.3 is the second lowest in Western Europe. Italy’s population is also ageing, with more than 20 per cent over 65, a figure expected to double by 2050.
Last year, the government introduced a baby bonus of 1,000 (600) for couples having a second child. The scheme started in December 2003 and runs until the end of this year, but take-up has been low. As a result, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government may extend the scheme to 2005. Last month, the welfare minister, Roberto Maroni, revealed the government was discussing giving the bonus to the firstborn of childless couples.
With a low birth rate and ageing population, pension reform has been a priority. Until ten years ago, Italians looked forward to a very comfortable retirement. Pensions were 80 per cent of their final salary and, if they had worked for 25 years, they could retire at 43. It led to what was known as "bambini-pensionati’’ (baby pensioners), with thousands retiring in early middle age.
With pensions paid from workers’ wages, it meant a huge drain on the country’s GDP. As a result, the retirement age was raised to 57 for men and women. Changes taking effect from 2008 will raise it to 60, with workers able to retire only if they have 40 years of contributions.
NICK PISA IN ROME
FRANCE has the highest birth rate in Europe after Ireland, with 792,600 births registered in 2003. With French women bearing an average of two children, the renewal of the country’s population is assured.
The baby boom is linked to long-established child-friendly policies, such as cheap, income-linked state childcare and generous tax breaks for larger families, making it easy for women to continue working if they have young children.
In January, the population, including France’s overseas territories, was estimated at 61.7 million. By 2050, if demographic tendencies remain stable, it will be 64 million. About 75 per cent of population growth since 1946 has been due to births, with the remainder because of immigration.
The policy over the past 20 years has been to not encourage immigration, but the number of immigrants arriving each year in France continues to grow at a rate of around 10 per cent per annum.
Ageing is a major concern; by 2050, one person in three will be 60-plus compared with one in five in 2000. This has led to fears about how the country will finance costly pension and health systems.
Last year, a controversial law increased the number of years public-sector employees must work to earn a full pension, while plans for more private-pension contributions have met fierce opposition.
SUSAN BELL IN PARIS