The Philippine demography: A ticking time bomb or a window of opportunity?

The Philippines is undergoing a shift in demographics as its population shrinks and ages, creating new challenges and opportunities for its leaders.

It is a known trend that developed nations eventually find themselves observing a decline in their population. With the foresight of the academe and the analyses of economists and other experts, it is easy to conclude that such a decline would be attributed to an educated population, more women in the workforce, and even socioeconomic uncertainty. Likewise, the Philippines too finds itself following this trend, although not as drastically as its East Asian neighbors. The dip in birth rate has been met with both alarm and optimism, raising questions about what this means for the nation’s development. 

The Philippine context

The connotations surrounding decline in population growth have a different meaning in the Philippine context. It is neither “bad” nor “good,” but a situation that requires more nuanced perspectives. According to Dr. Juan Antonio Perez III, the vice president of the Forum for Family Planning and Development Inc., “The birth rate (decline) is a red herring.” He states that the effects of population decline will only be seen in a generation, and the population of the Philippines will slowly continue growing for the next 50 years. 

Furthermore, he says that the population of the Philippines has tripled since 1969, compared to its neighbor, Thailand, which only doubled. This population boom has historically made it difficult for the government to provide adequate services for every Filipino, ultimately overloading the country’s available infrastructure. 

While the repercussions of overpopulation are pervasive, a rapid decline in birth rates also comes with its own drawbacks. The latter has led to aging populations in developed nations such as Japan. However, unlike the Philippines, Japan has the technologies and social programs to support its elderly. In contrast, what the Philippines may have is not a problem but an opportunity to improve the state and welfare of its people. 

Philippine demographics are trending toward a situation where women bear less than two—but not zero—children, which Perez calls a “demographic dividend.” Dr. Grace Cruz, a professor of demography from the University of the Philippines Population Institute, defines a demographic dividend as the point where the number of working-age people outnumbers the dependents, such as the elderly and children. This means that most of the population will be those who are legally and physically capable of working, giving the country an opportunity to maximize its economic growth.

The country’s total fertility rate plummeted to 1.9 in 2022, which opens an opportunity to build a more sustainable future.

A critical time frame 

The Philippines is in a critical period of transition—one where Filipinos find themselves with a much lower total fertility rate (TFR) compared to previous decades with a massive potential of young people in the workforce. A notable statistic from the Philippine Statistic Authority puts the TFR at 1.9 for 2022. 

Cruz explains that the TFR is the average number of children a woman would bear by the time she turns 49 years old, which is the average end of child-bearing years. She also notes that the 1.9 TFR is right below the replacement rate, which is the TFR value that implies a surplus in population and is typically 2.1 for most developed nations.

This period of low TFR suggests a relatively short time frame for which necessary action—be it from government, private entities, or non-governmental organizations—must be done to support the current population and prevent the exacerbation of current socioeconomic issues like poverty, malnourishment, and unemployment. In Perez’s view, the Philippines is at the point where population growth has slowed down enough to focus on human development. It is currently in a sweet spot where, despite the decline in births, younger people who are more likely to engage with the economy are still the major age group.

“That (decline in births) is a good thing,” remarks Perez. Among the reasons emphasized regarding this include unsustainable growth which will strain the national budget and shift the government’s priorities. The decreasing birth rates also imply that the average age within a population may be higher than in previous years,  but this is not necessarily a cause for concern. In fact, it may even be beneficial to the Philippines. With the population’s growth under control, Perez believes that it would be easier to strengthen the economy and create job opportunities. 

This is precisely why Perez describes the “issue” that is birth rate decline to be a “red herring”; the real issues are all the ongoing socio-economic issues that plague the nation. The Philippines’ shrinking population is, according to Perez, a window of opportunity to reallocate government resources toward initiatives that strengthen human welfare—including family planning programs, employment opportunities, and higher incomes and pensions. With these initiatives, it may even be possible for only one parent to have a full-time job and still support their family.

This is a window of opportunity that would not last. Should population growth bounce back up from 1.9 to a population surplus, as Cruz notes, it would only strain resources. Perez also stresses the importance of social programs to support the country’s aging population. He states that nations like Japan, South Korea, and China have managed to invest in their people as their population growth slowed down, allowing their current aged population to live under strong social programs. An aged population with lackluster support is simply a recipe for disaster.

A change in priorities

Cruz believes that population is at the core of development because to plan for development, one has to “go back to the numbers.” For the Philippines to take advantage of this demographic opportunity, fostering human development is crucial. However, the government’s efforts to tackle social issues have been lackluster at best, contributing to an increasing proportion of stunted children, learning poverty, and teenage pregnancy. 

Many families have difficulties feeding their children because there are too many mouths to feed—an issue worsened by an insufficient minimum wage and surging inflation rates, strangling our lower and middle classes with no help in sight. With the government dragging its feet when passing family planning initiatives, especially the Reproductive Health Law, our window of opportunity is shortened to only 10 years, before our population starts aging. Conversely, our neighbors who reached their demographic goals decades before us had 30 years to exploit their demographic dividend.

Cruz stresses that these programs and policies are already good—the problem lies with implementation. These programs cannot succeed when government support is lacking. Moreover, Perez mentions that more resources are being poured into infrastructure projects rather than social programs and human capital, leaving the rest to crumble as the government essentially chases a moving target. 

Without these elements, the Philippines’ infrastructure is doomed to lag behind its population numbers. To solve these incumbent issues, these priorities need to be reversed. As Perez puts it, “people at the center of development, rather than development at the center of the people.”

This article was published in The LaSallian‘s March 2024 issue. To read more, visit

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