Are we headed for a baby bust?

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

It took the Philippines more than half a century to bring down its birth rates to somewhat decent levels, from an average of 6.3 children per woman in 1970 to 2.67 in 2017, and – if we are to be assured that there was no blip on the chart or a fluke happening – to 1.9 this year.

For the world’s population managers, a birthrate of 2.1 is considered ideal for a country to achieve economic growth without fear of not having enough people to fulfill jobs. This assumes also that there will be no major migratory movements or deaths.

The reported 1.9 birthrate this year among Filipino women aged 15 to 49 by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) is the country’s sharpest decline over a five-year period, and ranks us today as having the third lowest in Southeast Asia.

The decline is a surprise, especially as the country has just emerged from one of the longest lockdowns in the world because of the pandemic. Many had surmised that this had presented the perfect opportunity for families to create more babies.

Apparently, this was not the case, and of the responses by many women who participated in surveys eliciting their concerns during the pandemic, one was the fear of getting pregnant.

I’m sure demographers are now busy trying to understand this sudden shift in population behavior, and hopefully validate what happened as part of an understandable trend. Until the experts are able to decipher what really happened, we dare come up with some reasons for the abrupt change.


First, the Roman Catholic Church’s strong views that more widely popular in the ‘70s and 80s against the use of artificial contraceptives now holds a much diminished sway on its faithful, with “enlightened” Catholics arguing that responsible parenthood must take priority.

The concept of planning the right number of children depending on a couple’s income and aspirations was first introduced in the Philippines, albeit on a limited scale, by Presbyterians, congregational, and other Protestant ministers in the 40s.

It was only in the late ‘60s, after the Philippines became a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on Population, that the government formally moved to undertake family planning and population management programs. In 1971, the Commission on Population (Popcom) was established, and in 1974, claims for tax exemptions on children were reduced to four, reflecting the seriousness by which the government viewed population control.

All these initiatives by the Philippine government were strongly opposed by the Catholic Church during the next two to three decades. Following advances in mass media, mainly through television and radio, in the next decade, debates on birth control pills, including the use of vasectomy or ligation, and condoms allowed more Catholics to make their own decisions, regardless of the Church’s position.

Women empowerment

The second possible explanation for the sharp dive in birth rates is the rise of empowered women in the Philippines, where housewives choose to contribute an income to the household earnings, but more importantly, having a stronger say in how the household runs.

The early indicators of this empowerment can be gleaned from the first waves of Filipinas who left their families for overseas jobs, mostly as domestic helpers in countries like Hong Kong or Saudi Arabia, despite criticisms and fears that this kind of migrant work would destroy the fiber and sanctity of the Filipino family.

A wave of development work followed solely focused on organizing and mobilizing women to take a more active economic role, not only in family life, but also in the community. Not only are Filipino women more at ease now at forming their own decisions, but they also have realized that they can solve problems through cooperative work.

In fact, since 2006 when the World Economic Forum started tracking gender equality, the Philippines figured in the top rankings as Filipino women were given ample opportunities and rights to participate in economic activities, to attain a decent education, and to participate in political movements.

Other reasons

Another reason for the abrupt decline in country’s birthrate would be the availability of safer contraceptive pills and devices, making it easier for women to embrace family planning methods that would, without fail, prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Contraceptives are also more widely available in barangay health centers, and its distribution has been removed of earlier stigmas. Drugstores also carry a wider range of products, while medical practitioners are well versed in recommending brands.

With more women taking on jobs and wanting to keep them, the choice of having a child is usually deferred. Part of the reason is the desire to be able to raise a child under the best conditions, which often means that careers may have to take the back seat.

On the periphery, some women simply feel that having a child exacerbates the overpopulation problem of the world, which has just crossed the eight billionth mark. Others simply think they can’t afford a child or be held responsible for a life.

The Philippines is definitely going to be an interesting case study, with questions about the possibility of it already entering a baby bust cycle, a period when there will be fewer babies born to keep population numbers at the ideal size. That’s a bit far into the future, but our economic planners should be prepared for it.

For now, though, the bigger task at hand is how the government can ensure that the huge youth segment of population, born during a still baby boom era from 1993 through to 2017, will be amply prepared to become productive citizens of the future.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.


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