'We can't afford it': Why Chinese millennials are choosing not to have kids

A lack of affordable childcare is making many young Chinese couples think twice about having children.
PHOTO: Lau Ka-kuen

This is the 13th in a series of stories about China’s once-a-decade census, which was conducted in 2020. The world’s most populous nation released its national demographic data in May and the figures will have far-reaching social policy and economic implications.

With her first child due in August, Getty He’s joy about becoming a mother is tinged with a host of worries about how the new family will stave off financial disaster.

Although she will receive 178 days paid maternity leave at the same rate as her monthly salary, it is what comes afterwards that is making her nervous – the cost of childcare.

“Every time I think about the pressure of work and childcare after maternity leave, I become apprehensive,” said the 34-year-old human resources manager from Guangzhou in south China.

“She or he hasn’t been born yet, but I’m pretty sure it will be my only child, because both my husband and I know we can’t afford a second.”

He is in a better situation than some Chinese, like freelancers or the unemployed, who receive no maternity leave at all. She is entitled to an allowance because she is in a stable job and has been paying maternity insurance for a sufficient period of time.

But her childcare predicament encapsulates many of the challenges facing young couples in China today, and highlights the nation’s pressing demographic problems.

The combination of a lack of affordable public childcare, rising living costs and the gruelling hours many people must work to survive are all contributing to reluctance among millennials to have children. And it could not come at a worse time for the world’s most populous country, which is blighted by a declining fertility rate and a rapidly ageing population.

According to a March survey of 1,938 millennials by the Social Survey Centre of China Youth Daily, 67.3 per cent of young people said inability to find domestic help was the No 1 reason they were unwilling to have a second child.

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Some 61.7 per cent cited high financial pressure, followed by a lack of safe and appropriate nurseries at 54 per cent, higher demand for housing at 41.6 per cent, while 24.3 per cent cited the impact it could have on a woman’s career and employment opportunities.

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After finishing her maternity leave, He has three options for childcare. First, quitting her job and becoming a housewife, even though her husband’s income is not enough to cover living costs; hiring a nanny and installing cameras around the house; or asking her mother-in-law to move from her hometown and provide free care.

“For working class families like us, it’s not practical and affordable to hire a nanny that usually costs 6,000 yuan (S$1,250) or above each month, which accounts for more than half of my after-tax income,” He said. “I’m also worried about handing over my baby to a stranger.

“The most likely way is to let my mother-in-law come, although that means she will have to live apart from her husband for a number of years until our child can go to junior school. My father-in-law is still working and cannot retire yet.”

Due to a shortage of live-in helpers – most of whom are rural migrant workers – it is more expensive to hire a domestic maid in China compared to a foreign maid in many other developed Asian cities, including Singapore and Hong Kong, where a family can employ someone for about HK$5,000 (S$852) per month. Disposable income per capita in China’s major cities lags far behind Singapore and Hong Kong, too.

A 2019 report by Chinese online recruitment platform 58.com said continued market growth will see the shortfall in domestic helpers reach 30 million by next year.

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“The monthly salary of a nanny keeps soaring. According to industry insiders, 10.4 families compete for an experienced nanny in first-tier cities,” said Hu Zijian, who runs Anxindaojia Ltd, a housework employment agency in Guangzhou.

“It now costs 5,500 yuan per month for daily housework. If there is a child under 6 years old, it costs 6,000 yuan to 7,000 yuan … an infant under 3 years old, at least 8,000 is required.”

Not only is domestic help out of reach for many working class Chinese, but so is affordable childcare.

The share of “inexpensive” public kindergartners in China has dropped from 77 per cent of the total in 1997 to 38.4 per cent in 2019, according to data from the Ministry of Education.

Childcare for children under the age of three is lacking in particular, especially in rural areas.

According to the education ministry, only about 4.71 per cent of children admitted to nurseries in 2019 were under 3 years old, well below the European Union average of 35 per cent or the 32 per cent average among countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“It has cost me about 8,000 yuan per month to send my son to a private nursery since he was six months old, which is located in Shenzhen’s hi-tech industry park,” said Cheng Minyi, a female IT engineer in Shenzhen, whose son is now 4 years old.

“It’s very expensive. Even though I’m a white collar worker with decent pay in the city, it’s unaffordable if we have two kids at a similar age.”

It’s a similar story outside China’s big cities. Yu Mingqian, a 21-year-old mother from Biyang county in Henan province, said she plans on having no more than two children.

“One-year of tuition for kindergarten costs between 5,000 yuan and 10,000 yuan in our county.”

Per capita disposable income for rural residents in 2019 was about 17,300 yuan, according to the Henan provincial government.

Huang Wenzheng, a demographer who has written extensively on the nation’s declining fertility rate, estimated that if China was to increase the nursery enrolment rate of children below 3 years old to 50 per cent, about 100,000 new childcare centres would need to be built to fit them all.

Another factor complicating the calculation for millennial parents is the long hours many are required to work to get by.

“We work 16 hours a day for more than half of month while we are pitching projects,” said Penny Lin, a media director for a Shanghai-based advertising company. “I can’t even see my husband all week long, let alone have a baby.”

Lin said work hours seemed to be only getting longer in the private sector , especially among small and medium-sized businesses struggling to handle the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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In 2019, China’s female labour rate was about 61 per cent, higher than the United States on 57 per cent, Japan on 54 per cent or 21 per cent in India, according to the World Bank.

The high labour force participation puts pressure on fertility rates, but there is also evidence having a child negatively impacts women’s wages in China. On average, the birth of each child cuts a mother’s wage by about 7 per cent, according to the 2014 China Health and Nutrition Survey.

For many parents, the best option for reducing the cost of childcare is to rely on grandparents .

Statistics show that China currently has nearly 18 million elderly migrants who have joined their adult children in cities, accounting for 7.2 per cent of the country’s estimated 247 million internal migrants. Some 43 per cent of them have moved to take care of grandchildren.

A 2017 study of about 3,600 households in six major cities, including Beijing and Guangzhou, found almost 80 per cent had at least one grandparent acting as a caregiver before children began primary school, according to the Chinese Society of Education.

Some 60 per cent of parents relied on grandparents‘ help even after they reached primary school at age six.

“Frankly, having a child is only being made possible because of my mother-in-law’s sacrifice,” He said.

“The real reason for low fertility rates is there is not enough public social support when the cost of housing and childcare are so high.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.