How to boost falling birth rates around the world

North Korea isn’t the only one with a falling birthrate; China, Japan, South Korea, the US and others are dealing with this same challenge.

How to boost falling birth rates around the world
People and children leave a children's hospital in Beijing, China November 27, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

This week, news came out about North Korea appealing to its women to have more babies. The country is experiencing a falling birth rate, which is bad if it wants to continue sustaining its economy by replacing older generations of the population with younger ones. North Korea isn’t really open about releasing its demographic statistics, but South Korea has estimated that the nation’s birth rate has been falling for at least the past decade. North Korean state media also released a video of its leader, Kim Jong Un, appearing to cry as he talked about the country’s falling birth rate. 

But North Korea isn’t the only one with a falling birth rate; China, Japan, South Korea, the US and others are dealing with this same challenge.

China has rolled out cash incentives for new families and younger brides as well as boosting support for fertility treatments to increase its birth rate. South Korea, Singapore, France, Australia, Canada, Russia and Poland have all offered bonuses for new parents per child. And some places in Germany even offer free childcare.  

Taiwan has been dealing with a falling birth rate for decades and has tried a few different methods for boosting it, including offering six months of paid parental leave reimbursed at 60% of a new parent’s pay (then eventually bringing that up to 80%). It also began offering cash benefits and tax breaks to newer parents, too, and started pouring money into childcare centers. In total, these approaches cost the region over US$3 billion. But so far, these incentives don’t seem to be reversing the birth rate problems.

So, how exactly do you convince people to start having more kids?

Making childcare more affordable for families is one way that worked well in the town of Nagi-cho, Japan. This makes it easier for working parents to raise a child without piling on the expenses associated with childcare. Since the town rolled out its family incentives, it’s managed to double the birth rate over the past decade or so.

Another approach is to make work more flexible so that parents will be available to take care of their own children. This has worked well in places like Sweden and Germany.

"We have an understanding that during some part of their life, women and men have small children, and sometimes they have to go home early from work," says Professor Gunnar Andersson, head of Stockholm University's Demography Unit.

Yet another approach is to encourage men to be more involved at home, making domestic life more gender-balanced. A study in Seoul has shown that fertility rates increased when men helped out more at home. 

But maybe the best way to bring fertility rates up is to make the world a better place. “Young adults are living in a world which is characterized by many crises,” like war and climate change, explains Jessica Nisén, a family demographer at the University of Turku in Finland. This reality makes it difficult for young people to be confident they’ll be bringing a child into the kind of world worth living in.