TOKYO -- The average Japanese woman will give birth to 1.44 babies in her lifetime, according to new estimates, showing improvement but still far behind the 1.8 rate the government wants to support the country's population.
The latest figure, up from 1.35 in the previous estimate in 2012, comes from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. The target 1.8 rate is said to be achievable if young people have as many children as they wish.
The fertility rate hit a low of 1.26 in 2005 and recovered to 1.45 in 2015, according to data from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Women in their 30s and 40s gave birth more. The ministry touted the fact that the rate of women continuing to work after bearing a first child passed 50% for the first time in the past five years. It sees the increase in women working post-childbirth, owing to measures improving access to childcare, as contributing to the rising birth rate.
But there is little room for optimism. Even though the government hopes to keep the population at around 100 million, the birth rate must be at 2.07 just to maintain the population. The current 1.44 rate would far undershoot the goal.
The fertility rate could rise above 1.44 with the right government policies, but reaching even 1.8 would be difficult, says Naohiro Ogawa, a project professor at the University of Tokyo who is familiar with population issues.
The marriage rate is declining as well. About 12% of people are currently unmarried, but that figure is seen rising to around 19%. Single people unable to turn to their families for help if they fall ill or lose their job are expected to increase. A rise in people staying poor and aging single would raise the burden on social security. While marriage is a choice, the public and private sectors will need to address the economic factors that often make it unfeasible.
Japan's aging population is slanting its generational makeup. Estimates show that in 2065, people ages 65 and over will make up nearly 40% of the population. This would mean each elderly person would be supported by just 1.2 working people. If social security payments to the elderly are not slimmed, working people's burden could become unbearable.
Social insurance benefits will need to be trimmed to the bare bones of medical care and nursing, and older people would need to take on more of the burden. The nation will need to prepare to let people work later in life, and to raise the pension-collecting age past 65.