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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Demographic transition

“Will this trend persist after the pandemic?”

Amidst this depressing situation of surging infections, there is a piece of encouraging news coming from the Population Commission. According to POPCOM, the population increase last year was the lowest for the country in 75 years at 0.3 percent. This is way below the normal increase that we have been having in the past which is about 1.7 percent. The same is true in 2020. The increase for that year was 0.79 percent.

With the increase of births way below projections, our population which is now estimated to be 109,991,095 is two million fewer than expected.

The effect of this on the country is huge. If this trend continues and our economy grows as projected, the human development index of the country will increase at a much faster rate. President Duterte should be very happy with these figures. Just a few weeks ago, he was saying that there are too many Filipinos and was suggesting three children per family.

It is not yet quite clear why Filipino families of child bearing age decided to have fewer children for the past two years. POPCOM theorized, however, that for the year 2020, there were about 8 million people who availed themselves of the government family planning program which was 500,000 more than 2019.

Maybe the pandemic also had something to do with it.

Whatever the reasons, there were fewer babies born in the last two years. Perhaps, they are starting to realize that more children are not necessarily better. This has prompted the POPCOM to say that the country is now in the process of demographic transition. If the agency is right, and on this I am not altogether sure, this process will take time and will have to go through several phases. This will then reach a point wherein we will be seeing a more stable population where the birth rate will somehow approximate the death rate.

The consequence of this is that we will begin to see the average Filipino age go up and our graying population will increase further. As we often hear from people who study economics and populations, there is a direct correlation between population growth and economic development. The developed countries which have very high development indexes have slower population growth and the developing countries with very much lower human development indexes have faster population growth.

For comparison, a little over a generation ago, our economy and that of Thailand were at the same level. Our populations were so comparatively the same. This is the reason why both countries were sometimes referred to as twins when it came to both their economic development and population growth. Today however, our population is almost 110 million while Thailand has only about 71 million people. The Thai GDP is also much larger than ours at this stage. Beginning in the 1990s, Thailand experienced a phenomenal economic growth while its birth rate started to fall. We now have about 40 million more people than Thailand.

If we are indeed starting to transition as stated by the PopCom, we will not be reaching our previous projected 2050 population by a huge margin. Will this be good for us? My best answer to this is that by and large, it will be most likely good but it will also depend on how our government demographers and economic leaders manage the situation.

There will always be dangers to a precipitous decline in population like what we are seeing now in many developed countries like Japan, Italy, Germany and others. These countries are experiencing acute labor shortages. In Italy as well as Japan, municipalities are enticing people to live in many abandoned towns offering a lot of incentives. In Japan, the government is at a crossroad whether to open the country to immigration because of their fast-aging population. The past couple of years saw Japan with more deaths than births.

The trick, of course, is to be able to manage the transition well to avoid these problems. But we are a very long way from that.

Unlike the POPCOM, however, I am not thoroughly convinced that we are now on a demographic transition. It is more likely a glitch due to the pandemic and the economic hardship it has inflicted on the people. A few more years is needed to see whether we have really started to transition demographically. If this lower birth rate continues after we get over this pandemic, then we can safely say that we are indeed transitioning.

I do not think however, that our very conservative Catholic Church will take this sitting down without saying anything particularly on the morality of dwindling number of family members. The difference this time is that it is the people of childbearing age themselves who have apparently decided to start having fewer babies.

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