Between 2012 and 2018, Taiwanese authorities closed 594 schools islandwide. They also cut thousands of classes at the remaining schools and reduced the hiring of new teachers.
All were steps taken in response to an ongoing fall in enrollments — approximately 100,000 fewer students per year during that period. The drop is the result of Taiwan’s declining birthrate, with women today bearing an average of 1.06 children, far below the 2.1 replacement rate needed to maintain the population.
Beyond empty schools, such a decline spells trouble across the social and economic map, especially as Taiwanese are living significantly longer than in the past, with projections suggesting that by 2065 there will be one working-age adult for every retiree.
Shortly after her election in 2016, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen appointed Lin Wan-i to coordinate the nation’s response to problems associated with an aging population.
Aware that no single policy would shift Taiwan’s demographic path, Lin, a professor of social work at National Taiwan University, looked to Japan for ideas, a country that in the 1990s began to address a comparable population shortfall through a multifaceted approach.
A decade ago, officials viewed the aging population as a statistical anomaly that would eventually right itself when the large elderly proportion of the populace began to die.
Solutions put forward included a have-a-baby slogan contest, matchmaking services, foreign brides, cash awards and trumpeting auspicious years to have children according to the Chinese Zodiac.
But it has become increasingly difficult to remain glib in the face of growing labor shortages and a declining tax base.
Indeed, another Tsai appointee, the National Development Council’s Chen Mei-ling, recently declared Taiwan’s birthrate “a national security issue.”
Lin’s first moves were modeled on Japanese programs initiated in the 1990s to encourage families to have more children.
Hoping to replicate Japan’s success in raising its fertility rate, Lin focused on relieving the financial cost for young parents bearing children. This would be accomplished through a cluster of subsidies that take the form of tax breaks, rent relief, parental leave, and subsidized preschools and infant care centers, many of which are located in the classrooms of closed or underutilized schools.
But there are reasons for declining fertility that are not simply financial.
Programs aimed at middle-class families must now contend with changing gender norms. Women are no longer willing to sacrifice career opportunities to fulfill traditional female roles of raising children and caring for in-laws.
Many decline to marry at all and those who do are often like Hsinchu resident Lori Wu, who, at 33, recently had her first child. While her husband earns enough to support the family, Wu is eager to return to professional life and has no plans to have more children.
For their part, men are faced with a dilemma. While society at large still holds them to traditional standards of manhood, the women they are likely to meet these days may not be willing to abide by this social construct any longer.
“A man must settle and raise a family,” said 65-year-old Chan Mei-chu, who also worries about her two educated, gainfully employed, but still unmarried sons, “or people will think he has no shoulders.”
Neither son would agree to an interview.
While the government has set a goal of raising the birthrate from 1.06 children per woman to 1.4 by 2030, sociologist James Hsueh says that under current conditions, even attaining a birthrate of 1.2 children per woman will be “nearly impossible.”
One way to compensate for lower numbers entering the workforce is to raise the participation rate of Taiwan’s existing population, which for adults 45 to 64 years old currently languishes at an abysmal 62.8 percent. That is far below rates in comparable regional economies such as Japan at 81.6 percent and South Korea at 75.7 percent.
In addition to subsidizing employers who hire and retrain older workers, the Tsai government again took a cue from Japan when it passed a package of pension reforms last year designed to keep people working longer and to sustain the benefits system as life expectancy continues to rise.
Policymakers are also rethinking migrant labor. Laws have been revised repeatedly over the last 20 years to attract foreign professionals by offering better terms, including permanent residency and even citizenship.
Similar changes are being considered for midlevel technicians and certain blue-collar workers, who have traditionally been hired only on a temporary basis. Such a shift would not only attract more in-demand workers but could also raise the fertility rate as immigrants settle and have families.
And where labor shortages persist, the Tsai administration has allocated an annual budget of 10 billion New Taiwan dollars (¥33.5 billion) from 2018 to 2021, to develop and integrate artificial intelligence for use with smart machinery, especially in areas like manufacturing and health care that present the greatest challenge for an aging society.
The marriage of AI and robotics “is a trend that is almost inevitable,” Lin said.
Elderly care has also received significant attention. While currently only 14 percent of the total population, Taiwanese aged 65 and older are increasing rapidly in number and are projected to draw proportionally level with Japan around the middle of the century.
Based on Japan’s “aging in place” program, Lin oversees a long-term care policy that de-emphasizes facility-based services in favor of those located in the home and community that integrate medical care, nursing, preventive care, family assistance and livelihood support.
“Taking care of the elderly should not be the sole job of hospitals,” Lin said.
Not only will seniors be able to remain in an environment familiar to them, but doing so will lower costs to national health insurance and other government support programs, he said.
To that end, empty schools are being turned into senior day care centers operated by charity groups, churches or local hospitals, where families can have elderly parents cared for while they are at work.
For seniors still willing and able, Lin hopes to set up something like Japan’s Silver Human Resource program that brings retirees into the labor market by offering them part-time, paid employment.
“If the system works, it could reduce our dependence on foreign care workers,” he said.