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Indonesia's falling marriage rate sparks concern about low fertility and 'undesirable consequences' on economy

South China Morning Post - March 17, 2024

Johannes Nugroho – Siswanto Cokro, a grandfather of three, was surprised to hear about the declining number of registered marriages in Indonesia over the last few years, a trend which has put the government on alert for fear of "undesirable consequences" on the economy.

"I keep getting all these wedding invitations," the 60-year-old Surabaya resident said. Shaking his head adamantly, he added, "People will always wed and have children."

Melissa Suryanti, 23, had a different response. "Of course, that's to be expected these days. It's expensive to start a family, so people either save up or try to sort out their careers first," said the native of Malang, East Java.

Indonesia's marked decline in marriage rates reflects stark shifts in socio-economic conditions, societal norms and demographic trends, analysts say, all of which have sparked concern among officials about the impact on the country's fertility rate and economic future.

In its annual data release, published late last month, Indonesia's Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) highlighted an overall drop in the number of people getting married over the last six years, with the sharpest downturn occurring in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2018, the BPS recorded 2,016,171 marriages in Indonesia but in 2020 the number nosedived to 1,792,548. Last year, it only registered 1,577,255.

Ariane Utomo, a demographic researcher and lecturer at the University of Melbourne, said the trend was no secret within her field of study.

"Demographers have long known that fertility rates were steadily on the wane, and delayed entry into marriage – one reason why we see this declining number of registered marriages – is one of the contributing factors."

She pointed out that Indonesia's total fertility rate (TFR) had been hovering around the "replacement level" of 2.1 since 2022, noting that "all the available data suggests the downward trend is likely to continue".

The TFR is a hypothetical measurement of the average number of children a woman can expect to have, given a country's current levels of fertility. The "replacement level" is the TFR value at which a population size is likely to remain unchanged.

Ariane said Indonesia had experienced a marked shift in demographic trends over the last 30 years, with its TFR perched at 3.0 between 1988 and 1991, dropping to 2.6 in the early 2000s before falling to 2.4 in 2017. Last year, Indonesia's TFR stood at 2.14.

The numbers have caused disquiet within the Indonesian government.

"The latest data should serve as a warning for the government since it will affect our fertility rate as a nation, which could lead to undesirable consequences if left unmanaged," said National Population and Family Planning Board chief Hasto Wardoyo.

According to Hasto, much of the government's current economic strategy revolves around Indonesia's "demographic dividend", or its growth potential resulting from the working-age population, aged 15 to 64, being larger than its non-working cohort.

"Our dividend window has already started [closing] and will probably last until 2035, so we must assess how the recent trend in declining marriage and birth rates will change our economic fortunes," he said.

In May last year, Minister of National Development Planning Suharso Monoarfa said Indonesia's TFR could touch 1.9 by 2045 in the absence of policy intervention. To preserve Indonesia's competitive edge for optimum economic growth, the TFR needed to remain around 2.0 with a projected population of 325 million in 2045, he added.

Ironically enough, however, the recent shift in attitudes towards marriage and children partly stems from previous government policies, according to Ariane.

In the 1970s, Indonesian authorities rolled out a massive keluarga berencana (family planning) campaign to encourage couples to stop at two children, and laud the ideal marriage age as 25 for men and 20 for women.

"This ideational shift is still having its impact today as various studies have indicated that most Indonesians still subscribe to the Suharto-era ideals of having a small family," Ariane said.

She further noted that delayed marriage would affect Indonesia's overall fertility rate, saying the experience of other nations had shown reversing declining birth rates through policy interventions to be "elusive" at best.

"We've seen governments in low-fertility countries in the West, East Asia and in neighbouring Singapore churn out policy initiatives meant to encourage people either to get married or have children but their impact, if any, was largely temporary."

In a 2023 UN Population Fund ranking of TRF values, Timor Leste led 11 Southeast Asian countries with 3.0, Indonesia was fifth with 2.1, Malaysia came eighth with 1.8 and Singapore was last with 1.0.

Singapore, whose TFR was below replacement level in 1975, started introducing pro-fertility measures in 1987 with financial incentives to encourage marriage and births among its citizens.

The scheme was expanded in the early 2000s to include cash payments for new parents, tax rebates for working mothers and health insurance for children, representing the most comprehensive policy of its kind in Asia.

Last year, the Singapore government increased cash incentives for newborn babies by more than 30 per cent. Nevertheless, the city state's TFR continued to decline over the years.

While she said the Singapore model offered valuable lessons, Ariane described Indonesia's case as "unique".

"Just because the number of registered marriages is declining, it doesn't necessarily mean Indonesians are abandoning the institution of marriage en masse," she said. "Far from it."

Ariane said her research had indicated getting married and having children remained the "ideal social aspirations" for most Indonesians, adding that 2022 data pointed to 96.69 per cent of women aged between 40 and 44 being legally wed.

"At the same time ... our data further suggests the average age for getting married has also generally risen overtime, indicating many have chosen only to put off marriage rather than swear off it altogether."

The number of Indonesians who did not want marriage or remained single, while also on the rise, was "a tiny minority", Ariane said.

Surabaya-based Budi Hartanto and Linda Wijaya, both in their late 20s, have been married for three years.

"We decided to wait for a couple of years before having kids but I guess it's been three," Budi said. Linda added that they did not think it was a good time to start a family during the pandemic, but "maybe next year or so" they would.

Oki Rahadianto Sutopo, a sociologist and director of the Youth Studies Centre at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University, said more young Indonesians were putting off marriage because of "structural challenges".

"People aspire to be financially stable first before venturing into married life, which can be difficult these days with the rising trend of the gig economy and the financial uncertainty it entails," he said. "The high cost of housing, especially in urban areas, is another consideration for many."

In 2023, pollster UniTrend surveyed 1,192 millennial and Gen Z respondents across Indonesia. Nearly half – 47.2 per cent – whose monthly income ranged between 2 million and 5 million rupiah (US$128 to US$320), said they could not afford to buy their own home.

A modest house on the outskirts of Jakarta could cost up to 1.5 billion rupiah, while prices for those in neighbouring towns such as Bekasi start at 300 million rupiah. Indonesian banks typically require 15 per cent of the total cost of a property as down payment for a mortgage.

The UniTrend poll also revealed only 30.7 per cent of respondents had a monthly income of between 10 million and 20 million rupiah. Only 21 per cent said they felt ready to buy their first home.

Ariane, however, cautioned against generalisations based on the BPS numbers, saying "the reality in different parts of the country can be vastly different from one another".

Indonesia, an archipelagic nation of 18,110 islands, has 630 different ethnic groups and is divided into 34 provinces.

"The provinces have large variations in development levels, ethnic make-up and, hence, TFR scores. Between 2014 and 2017, for example, two provinces – East Java and Bali – were already at replacement level around 2.1," Ariane said.

Yenny Lubis, a Medan-based activist for sexual and reproductive rights, said attitudes towards marriage and childbearing also varied from one socio-economic class to another.

"Rural Indonesians tend to have a more conventional attitude towards getting married and having children than those in urban areas, many of whom now delay marriage until they are financially set up," Yenny said.

Education, especially among young women, played an important part in engendering new perspectives on marriage, Yenny said, adding that in a patriarchal society like Indonesia's, women were often forced to give up their careers upon marriage.

Ariane agreed with this assessment, noting that amid rising economic pressures and labour market uncertainty, there was increasing pressure for couples to become dual earners, necessitating shifts in traditional gender roles within the family.

"Understanding how young Indonesian couples choose to adapt to them may be crucial in determining whether the trend of declining marriage and birth rates will continue," Ariane said.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/people/article/3255577/indonesias-falling-marriage-rate-sparks-concern-about-low-fertility-and-undesirable-consequence