Counter low births by focusing on seniors, says Thai population expert

Initiatives that allow older citizens to remain productive in the workforce should be given more attention, say family planning experts in Thailand. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Like many other countries, Thailand is facing a double whammy of falling birth rates and an ageing society.

While the authorities are trying to encourage more couples to have babies, family planning experts are urging that attention be paid to initiatives that allow older citizens to remain productive.

“We must rethink our perception of the senior demographic. Because if we don’t turn this challenge into an opportunity, it will become a full-on crisis,” said Assistant Professor Piyachart Phiromswad, who specialises in population economics.

He does not think it effective to persuade couples to have more children, with changing attitudes to family, careers and lifestyles.

“Evidence has shown that it is impossible to fully reverse a drop in fertility rate. We need to shift focus on the existing people and see the senior population as a source of productivity,” he said, noting that technology, healthcare and a change of mindset can enable older people to return to the labour force or contribute in meaningful ways.

“If people are healthy and can still work, 60 may be the new 40.”

At the annual International Conference on Family Planning in Pattaya in early November, Thai population experts and lawmakers spoke about the country’s family planning policies dating back to the 1960s, and the challenges today.

Thailand’s current demographic trend is a world away from what it was in the 1960s to 1970s, when most families had an average of seven children and the fertility rate stood at 6.1. This dropped to 1.24 in 2020, lower than the population replacement level of around 1.6.

The current challenge is to address the low fertility rates that could negatively impact the economy and the future labour force, said the Department of Disease Control’s director-general Suwannachai Wattanaying-charoenchai.

While rich countries like Japan and Singapore are also facing rapidly ageing populations, Thailand, which is a middle-income economy, differs in terms of development, wealth and social infrastructure, said Prof Piyachart.

The Thai government has been trying to promote childbirth in the hope of increasing the fertility rate, through the use of financial and child-support incentives, as well as by opening more childcare and fertility clinics nationwide.

It even toyed with the idea of using social media influencers to encourage young couples to have children. But the plan did not take off, said Bureau of Reproductive Health director Bunyarit Sukrat. “Not everyone is able to relate to the kind of life these influencers have.”

One other challenge is the teenage pregnancy rate. Despite a steady decrease from the 2012 peak of 53 pregnancies per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19, to just 28 cases for the same age group in 2020, the eventual goal is to bring it down to 20 in the next four years, said Dr Bunyarit.

On this front, access to safe abortions and contraception has become easier with recent legal changes and free coverage for these procedures. The use of contraception, like condoms, pills and implants, has also increased, said Dr Bunyarit.

For that, the country has one man to thank: Mr Mechai Viravaidya, founder of the Population and Community Development Association. Also known as Mr Condom, he changed the way people in Thailand perceived contraceptive use, sex education and family planning.

Mr Mechai Viravaidya (in yellow hat) changed the way people in Thailand perceived contraceptive use, sex education and family planning. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

Through novel campaigns that involved shopkeepers, taxi drivers and hairdressers handing out contraceptives, and other offbeat events such as condom-blowing competitions and vasectomy festivals, Thailand was able to tackle the problem of the then rapidly growing population as the use of contraception and family planning methods spread.

The fact that condoms are referred to as “mechais” in Thai slang is a testament to the former politician’s role in addressing social and population issues, and helping to fight the Aids epidemic in the 1980s.

“If it helps people remember better, why not?” Mr Mechai rejoined.

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