Commentary: Philippines’ fertility decline will be the global economy’s problem

“It’s a big bonus,” he told me. “Unfortunately, it won’t last long. In the Philippines context, it may last one to two decades.” The benefit of a second dividend will come only if the country can make this group more productive by investing in the quality of workers.  

While it’s time to jettison stereotypes about Filipinos having large families, there’s also a city-rural divide. The Manila area saw its total fertility rate decline to 1.2, well below the national figure, while it’s 3.1 in an autonomous region of the southern island of Mindanao.

“People are becoming more aware of their opportunities,” explained Carmela Aquino-Cabral, a fertility specialist at Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, one of Manila’s largest maternity hospitals. “There’s more to life than being a mum.” 

The ground war matters greatly. One recent morning, I accompanied a team of volunteers from the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health into the Tondo district, one of the capital’s most impoverished. The lanes were narrow and muddy. Satay and fish cooked on open-air stoves; children scampered about while parents or grandparents leaned out the windows of makeshift shops.  

We were a few kilometres, and a whole world, away from the glass towers, fashionable cocktail bars and five-star hotels of the Makati enclave. It’s a regular beat for Cabello and her three colleagues.

These women are foot soldiers of a demographic revolution that’s gaining converts block by block – they hope. “I do share my own experiences, I am using the pill,” said Cabello. “In the long run, people will believe in us.”   

There are no easy solutions for developed nations so reliant on imported labour. Strengthening tertiary education and vocational training is vital, as is addressing poor pay and working conditions for professions like nursing.

For its part, the Philippines must tread carefully – it still has a long way to go before it becomes an aged society, but there is always the danger of overcorrection and being left, like others in the region, with a labour shortage of its own.

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