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Fertility is not tool to tackle 'aging' problem

By Stuart Gietel-Basten | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2015-08-30 13:55

Gender roles and equality lay at the heart of household decisions on childbearing

A large number of Chinese couples are choosing to have only one child even when they can have two. What does this say about further reform of the family planning policy?

True, there is a "risk" that further reform could lead to a baby boom, which may have a destabilizing effect on public services in the short and medium term. But studies on fertility suggest that the ideal number of children among poorer, rural residents is fast approaching that of richer, urban residents. This suggests that further reform is unlikely to lead to a baby boom.

On the individual level, however, being legally able to have more children is a major issue for thousands of families. Evidence seems to suggest that further reform would enable enough couples to fulfill their dreams of having two children, but without causing a destabilizing baby boom. Therefore, it appears a universal two-child policy is a logical next step in the reform process.

Although there are suggestions that the family planning policy should be reformed to tackle the "aging problem", there is need to examine the low fertility aging issue in a fundamentally different way. Rather than a problem that needs to be fixed, very low fertility in China is a reflection of the worries, fears, risks and hopes that Chinese people are trying to navigate as they construct their lives.

In this sense, it is about much more than the cost of childbearing - a factor that is brought up time and again in surveys and studies. If, indeed, it was only about cost, policies offsetting this cost would naturally lead to higher birth rates. But the evidence from across East Asia and elsewhere is that they generally do not.

Recently, we (at Oxford University with colleagues in Beijing) conducted a series of interviews with women who have one child in Beijing. We asked them about their experiences of having a child, and how their lives had changed. We then asked them about the likelihood of having a second child. While the cost of childbearing - as expected - was a core component of their responses, the evidence from the interviews suggest a much more complex set of reasons.

The respondents were concerned about the education of their children, their position in the labor market, and even of other existential risks. But the issue that came up repeatedly was the extent to which their husbands - and, to a lesser degree, wider family such as grandparents - played a role in bringing up the children. As a rule, women for whom childrearing was more of a team effort were much more confident of having a second child. The reasons for this were again mixed.

The team effort factor allowed women to get back to work and continue building their life alongside their role as mother. Such women also had a sense that sharing the physical and emotional burden was central to the experience of motherhood, and therefore they were willing to go through the experience again.

The interviews highlighted that gender roles and equality lay at the heart of household decisions on childbearing.

One could say the major decisions on the future of fertility in China will be taken in apartments and houses rather than in the national and provincial capitals. But this would only be partly true. Policymakers can play a critical role in creating a society that is generally more supportive of parents, parenting and children. Of course, this will involve a holistic approach to policies on housing, planning, education, the labor market and, more explicitly, family-related policies.

Fertility is neither a problem nor a blunt tool that can solve the aging population problem. It is simply a reflection of concerns that residents have, and which the state should try to address. Think of a happier, better-educated people who are more secure in their jobs, who feel they will receive support in sickness and old age (and in taking care of their relatives), have equal access to services regardless of their hukou (housing registration) and can lead the lives they wish to regardless of their gender. These are, in themselves, laudable aims that few residents or politicians would argue with. If these aims were met, I strongly suspect fertility might increase by itself.

The author is an associate professor of social policy at the University of Oxford. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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