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June 22, 2017

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We must address declining marriage and birth rates

Your chances of tying the knot one day might depend on a lot of factors. If you are looking for your better half in Taiwan, however, there is a growing consensus that things might be more complicated as local men and women seem to be from different planets.

From January to March this year, marriages fell 2.2 percent to 38,594 unions, according to a recent survey published by the Ministry of the Interior (MOI). Last year, the country only recorded 143,384 weddings, down from 165,327 in 2011.

Most people might attribute the steady decline to a rise in people cohabiting or facing financial woes. Another explanation might be that men and women here are not making much of an effort to understand each other. Some men and their families tend to turn to young foreign spouses, while some women prefer to delay marriage and/or pregnancy, intentionally or not.

That is worrisome. Taiwan is traditionally a family-oriented society, but we must acknowledge that later marriages combined with higher divorce rates (the highest in Asia) and lower birth rates (one of the lowest in the world) now pose a threat to this concept of family, and beyond that to the island's job market and economy. These are two very sound reasons to encourage the government to further widen subsidies offered to families and open the country's job market to foreign talents.

Over the last three months, more than one in 10 marriages have involved a spouse from mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau (3,084 in total), as well as Vietnam, Japan and the United States (1,839 in total). On the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu, up to three in 10 weddings over the same period involved a spouse from mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau.

Although such marriages in this area reached a peak of 31.86 percent 10 years ago, with 60 percent of these spouses coming from mainland China, it is disturbing that a growing number of Taiwanese men and their families intentionally turn to foreign spouses, despite the government's crackdown on immigration fraud via marriage since 2004.

Some may argue that there aren't enough women living in the same area. But the ratio disparity is far from significant. Other studies show that both populations are similar in size, but the number of working women has increased sharply in recent years, with the consequence that more than 40 percent of Taiwanese women aged between 30 and 35 are now unmarried. A soaring number of couples won't have any children either, and the average family size has now shrunk to just three people.

Combined with Taiwan's higher standard of living, the costly health care system, high educational standards and soaring divorce rate, experts predict that children will account for only 9 percent of the population by 2060, while people over 65 years old will account for 42 percent, placing a much bigger burden on people of working age.

Accordingly, it is important for local and national authorities to take these trends into consideration and evaluate their profound implications on the job market and the economy before devising new policies aimed at boosting the island's plunging marriage and birth rates.

Taipei and New Taipei have already devised plans to allocate cash subsidies for parents and open day care centers for working parents with babies under 3 years old. Experts warn that time is not on our side. Back in the early 1950s, Taiwan's fertility rate peaked at 7.04 births per 100 women. Today, the birth rate has declined to just 0.9 births, making it one of the lowest in the world.

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