Multiple Factors Behind Thailand’s Birth Rate Decline, Experts Say

BANGKOK — Thailand will face a population crisis should the country’s low birth rate continue, possibly shrinking its population by half. Experts say the government must prioritize boosting Thailand’s parenthood welfare to find a solution to the crisis.

The average number of children born to one woman in Thailand is about 1.16, according to the World Bank figures for 2021, while some media report the rate was 1.08 for 2022. Thai health officials confirmed fewer than half-a-million new births, 485,085, in 2022 — the lowest number in 70 years.

Experts say that by the year 2083, Thailand’s population will shrink to 33 million should the current trend continue, with the majority being senior citizens.

Thailand currently has a workforce of about 39 million out of a nationwide population that exceeds 70 million.

Thai Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew has said the country’s birth rate decline is at a critical level.

Variety of causes

Sasiwimon Warunsiri Paweenawat, associate professor of economics at Thammasat University, cites numerous reasons for the declining birth rate.

“It’s decreasing a lot because we have an improvement of the health care system and the excess of the birth control,” she told VOA. “And in the past, the government has the policy to encourage the birth control.”

Thailand’s first national population program began in the 1970s. Sasiwimon said the government promoted a policy for the population to have fewer children.

Data show it worked: From 1963 to 1983, Thailand saw approximately 1 million new births annually before it steadily declined over four decades.

“They even had the slogan that ‘if you have more children, you will become poorer,’” Sasiwimon said.

Cholnan wants to rid Thailand of that notion under the “Give Birth, Great World” campaign, which makes boosting the country’s birth rate a national cause. He said the campaign aims to increase fertility throughout the country and provide medical help to those with reproductive issues.

Thailand isn’t the only Asian country grappling with low birth rates. Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have declining birth rates.

Sasiwimon says said education, cost of living, changing attitudes and maternity leave also affect Thailand’s low birth rate.

In Thailand pregnant women are entitled to no more than 98 days, or 14 weeks, maternity leave, which is one of the lowest in the Southeast Asia region. The International Labor Organization Maternity Protection Convention recommends 18 weeks maternity leave for a parent to recover from the pregnancy.

“In my research we found when women have more and more years of education, they prefer to have fewer children. When women are more educated, they join the labor market and earn income. If they have more and more children, they lose that income because of the costs,” she said. “Having children, [costs are] very high now — and the more educated the woman, the less likely they are to have children.”

Changing opinions about family

Many younger Thais have different attitudes than their elders.

“The attitude among the Thai population, the Gen Y, around 21 to 37 years old, are a large group of Thai population right now.  Compared to Gen X, who prioritize the family, this generation Y, they prioritize their career path and their personal life,” Sasiwimon said. “So, that’s why getting married or having children is their last priority. Instead of a work-family balance, they tend to prioritize themselves and it becomes a ‘work-and-me balance.’”

Jongjit Rittirong, associate professor for the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University, says Thailand has no time to waste implementing better welfare structures for parents.

“Increasing the birth rate within a short period or in a few years is impossible,” she told VOA. “Thailand needs a national plan in all policies to maintain the fertility level and needs a lot of effort to increase the birth rate, which may take years.

“According to the lesson from other developed countries,” she said, “increasing the birth rate is not that simple. It requires effort in many dimensions of social welfare to raise the birth rate.”

Rittirong also told VOA that families need a socially supportive environment to raise a child.

“For example, working couples need safe childcare in the first five years to care for their kids during working time. Some prefer childcare at their workplace, so they can stop by during the day to see their kids and give breastfeeding,” she said.

“Longer paid parental leave, flexible working hours for working parents, quality of school with affordable tuition fees, affordable housing with a friendly environment for kids’ activities, [and] medical insurance for young children [are also needed].”

Despite the concerns, Sasiwimon said she is happy Thailand’s new government is paying attention to the issue.

“The good news? The current government, they made it a national agenda to encourage people to have children,” she said. “When I look at the policy, if that can implement, it will be very good — the government has to adjust to the environment, provide a family friendly policy, provide assistance for mothers and encourage the role of both father and mother. This would be good to correct this crisis.

“If you want to adjust the population structure, it takes time,” Sasiwimon said. “If you want to have one child today, it can be in [the] labor force after 15 years. So, it’s a long-term plan, but I’m quite happy they have said it is a national agenda.”

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