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《经济学人》特别报道:亚洲四小龙(六)

2019 年 12 月 10 日 • 经济学人,特别报道

本期经济学人杂志关于“亚洲四小龙”的【特别报道】中的第六篇题为《Will age weaken the Asian tiger economies?》的文章论述了“亚洲四小龙”人口老龄化问题的原因、后果和应对之策。

The Economist, December 7th-13th 2019.

“亚洲四小龙”的失业率低得令人羡慕——都低于 4%,长期担忧并不是工作岗位不够而是年轻劳动力不足。“四小龙”的出生率低且老龄化速度要快于日本,出生率低可能跟这几个地区的工作文化有关,人们工作时间很长。韩国的男性在家只承担 1/5 的家务,女性生育小孩的成本较高,且来自国家的帮助不够,这些都导致许多女性推迟结婚。

为了改善“四小龙”不适宜的年龄结构,文章建议:

  • 一、“四小龙”应该减少每周工作时长,并延长工作年限;
  • 二、允许移民。外来工人分别占中国台湾和韩国劳动力市场的 6% 和 3.3%。相比之下,中国香港单是 38 万名女佣和保姆就占了劳动力市场的 8%。新加坡的外国工人有 140 万,占劳动力市场的比重超过 1/3;
  • 三、要想更好地利用国外充裕的劳动力,“四小龙”除了吸引移民外还可以输出资本。中国香港每年来自这些国外资产的净收入达到了人均 $2500。

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Demography: Will age weaken the Asian tiger economies?

SPECIAL REPORT: ASIAN TIGERS
Demography
Will age weaken the Asian tiger economies?

Shorter working weeks and longer working lives may be necessary

Print edition | Special report
Dec 5th 2019
At 4.30am hundreds of people are already spilling into the road outside Seoul’s Namguro station. They are not here for the trains, which will not begin for another hour. Nor are they attracted by the dawn cafeterias (offering blood sausage and flatbread), the upstairs song rooms (offering the comforts of crooning) or the basement spas (offering who knows what). They are gathered instead to offer their labour in return for a day’s wages, at whatever building site needs extra hands. As they wait for a bidder, they smoke, squat and cough. And they speak not in Korean but in gravelly Mandarin.

South Korea used to be a net exporter of labour. In the 1970s its workers built roads in Saudi Arabia, often at night by torchlight. But immigrants, including the Chinese gathered at Namguro, now make up a growing proportion of the workforce.

For all the fear in the tigers about jobs, their unemployment rates remain enviably low: less than 4% in all of them. Their long-term worry will be a shortage not of jobs but of people young enough to do them. The population of traditional working age (aged 15-64) is already declining in all four. By 2040 they will have fewer people in this age bracket, relative to their elderly population, than Japan has today. In a span of 20 years, the tigers will have aged as much as Japan did in more than 30.

The tigers’ fertility rates rank in the bottom ten worldwide: low enough that each new cohort is expected to be only 55% the size of its parents’ generation. Their governments have tried, without much subtlety or success, to reverse this trend. Some have even tried their hand at matchmaking. Singapore’s Social Development Network organises dinners, films and board games. One network-certified dating agency will help you find your ideal partner with the help of Lego bricks. In Taiwan the government has organised speed-dating and bike tours, among other events. But one senior official is blunt in her assessment: “Totally useless.”

One reason is the tigers’ work culture. “If a country requires its people to be locked up in their workplace, no wonder the birth rate is so low,” says Joyce Yang, who quit her public-relations job in Taipei after too many midnight finishes to the day. In South Korea, President Moon’s government has cut the maximum workweek to 52 hours (although exceptions persist). Ms Yang chose a more radical solution: moving to Australia, from where she urges her 30,000 Facebook followers to quit their workaholism. “Taiwanese don’t have time for life,” she says.

Time is one constraint; another is cost. Although society as a whole benefits from the vigour of each new generation, the cost of raising them falls squarely on one group: women of childbearing age. With elderly parents to worry about, little help from their husbands (men do only a fifth of the household chores in South Korea) and inadequate help from the state, many women have chosen to marry late, if at all, and have one child, if any.

Their predicament is worsened by one of the tigers’ proudest boasts: their commitment to education. Although the tigers all provide decent public schooling, many parents feel obliged to splash out on expensive private alternatives and additional tutoring. Some of this extra effort may add to a child’s knowledge and future productivity. But much of it is mere credentialism, an attempt to improve a child’s position in the queue for the best universities, and hence the best jobs. Education has become an arms race in which one parent’s additional outlay of time and money forces others to follow suit.

Education has become an arms race…Tiger parents risk hurting the tigers

In South Korea, Mr Moon has promised various acts of collective educational disarmament. He wants to merge universities into a single network, flatten the schools hierarchy and even discourage employers from hiring on the basis of academic credentials. Some of these proposals seem unworkable. His critics call it a “war on meritocracy”. But there is a distinction between merit, which should be rewarded, and wasteful attempts to signal merit, which are damaging. Tiger parents risk hurting the tigers.

Faced with this burden, some parents fabricate their children’s qualifications. One academic paper in 2009 on the genetic precursors of disease was supposedly co-written by the daughter of Cho Kuk, Mr Moon’s justice minister, even though she was only a schoolgirl at the time. He was forced to resign in shame.

Shy, but not retiring
To improve their unfavourable age structure, the tigers will have to combine shorter working weeks with longer working lives. They will need more people like Neo Kwee Leng. As he approached 60, he gave up his life as a small businessman to spend his days at the “Loving Heart” centre, an activity hub for the elderly in Singapore. It was not an act of retirement: he joined as a manager. Nor, as it turned out, was it much of a downshift. About 100 people drop in daily, each with different needs. Some come for medical check-ups, others to play ukulele, still others just to chat.

So Mr Neo upgraded his managerial skills, learning Excel and data analysis. “The hardest part is my eyesight,” he says. He has also run seminars on using smartphones. His training—of himself and others—is part of SkillsFuture, a government programme to promote lifelong learning.

In the tigers, lifelong can be lengthy indeed. Just as they have some of the lowest fertility rates, they also have some of the highest life expectancies. Even at 60 their people can still expect to live another 25 years or more, enough time to master both Excel and the ukulele.

Another way for the tigers to cope with their ageing is to permit more immigration. The foreign population accounts for 6% of the workforce in Taiwan and about 3.3% in South Korea. That is low by Western standards, but higher than Japan, where foreigners make up only 2%. In the two tiger cities the reliance on immigrants is far more dramatic. Much of Hong Kong’s population (39%) was born elsewhere, including over 2.2m from other parts of China. The foreign-born still occupy prominent positions in the courts, regulatory bodies and even the police. The city also relies on over 380,000 maids and nannies (mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia), who constitute over 8% of the workforce.

Singapore has 1.4m foreign workers, more than a third of its labour force. The government believes immigrants are needed to do the lower-skilled jobs that Singaporeans will no longer do. A white paper in 2013 forecast a population of up to 6.9m by 2030, from 5.7m today. In so doing, it inadvertently revealed the limits of openness in the city-state. The projection fuelled worries that immigrants would overburden the city’s infrastructure and public services. In the rarest of scenes for Singapore, a few thousand people protested in a park, some holding aloft signs such as “Singapore for Singaporeans”.

Immigration is not the only way to take advantage of more abundant workforces elsewhere. As well as importing labour, the tigers can, and have, exported capital. By lending and investing abroad, they have accumulated claims on the output of foreign workforces, without all the difficulties of bringing those workers to their shores. In Hong Kong, the net annual income from these foreign assets already amounts to almost $2,500 per person.

The tigers have accumulated these overseas investments by consistently selling more things to the rest of the world than they buy from it. Singapore’s current-account surplus last year was a whopping 18% of gdp. These trade imbalances have not yet provoked much scrutiny or condemnation from America. But that could change. These four economies are, after all, worthy of the world’s close attention.■

This article appeared in the Special report section of the print edition under the headline "Endangered species"

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