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Korea’s Plunging Birthrate Alarms Government
Birth dearth seems to have no easy solution
By: Shim Jae Hoon
After decades of high economic growth, South Korea today is heading backward to zero population growth. With official figures showing fewer women wanting to marry or have even one baby in their lifetime, the country looks like headed to contraction in the next few years, joining Japan and a handful of other shrinking nations.
Total fertility plunged to 0.78 last year, the lowest among OECD member countries, indeed in the world, even lower than Japan, which for decades has been the world’s fastest falling birthrate nation in the world. A total fertility rate of 2.1 per woman is necessary to maintain stability. Japan’s 2021 figure was 1.36.
But that’s not the whole story. More South Korean senior citizens are dying than ever before, with the postwar baby boom generation now reaching the seventies. Here too, Koreans are running faster than other countries in demographic change: over 370,000 seniors died last year as against 250,000-plus newborn babies, resulting in a population loss of 120,000. At this rate of mismatch between birth and death, the government’s Office of Statistics said, the country’s overall population size will begin to shrink from the present 50 million mark by 2031. It is going to take just 11 years for the nation’s peak population of 51.8 million reached in 2020 to fall to 49.9 million.
The falling birthrate has major implications from economic management to social, cultural lifestyles. Alarmed by what officials describe as a demographic crisis, President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is childless, is convening a government-wide conference this month to address the issue. But the prospects of reversing the trend look poor, according to many specialists, as the issue involves multiple factors outside government control.
For decades, the government has sought to reverse the population trend with a variety of policy incentives including cash subsidies for child-bearing families. Even so, according to one recent survey, only 4 percent of polled women in their 20s and 30s said marriage was central in their life. Fewer men and women are marching to the altar these days than ever before, and even when they do, they bear fewer or no children at all.
“Korea’s case represents an unprecedented example of steady process of depopulation,” commented Korea Economic Daily newspaper.
Local and central governments are offering a variety of incentives to reverse the trend, to encourage young couples to court and get married and have babies. Cash incentives are expected to rise from KRW700,000 (US$549) per child per month this year on top of a KRW 1 million won (US$760) cash gift for the first newly born baby, double that amount for twins. This level of subsidy is maintained for each newborn child that follows. Some local governments even pay for airfares of young men going overseas – mainly to Southeast Asia – looking for a potential partner.
But as far as young Korean women are concerned, having baby is a different matter. With the country in a postindustrial society, women want to pursue professional careers, not settle down as housewives bearing children. For those who do care to have babies, it’s not just childcare subsidies, but backup systems such as more and better daycare facilities, flexible working hours needed for childcare at home, and special provisions in labor laws to provide more and better home-working systems.
But as important as these institutional backup system, women want cultural changes that free wives from the main responsibility of caring and educating children while husbands focus on pursuing social careers. In the midst of social and economic transformation, a typical Korean housewife has to juggle two jobs, bringing up children as well as educating them. With good jobs short and quality education beyond the reach of many middle-income families, many young women give up the prospect of marriage in favor of a single life pursuing a self-satisfying professional career.
“I have no wish to hand these stressful problems of child-caring to my future children,” says one young female journalist refusing marriage.
The result is a growing number of men and women preferring single lifestyles, especially in Seoul where housing cost and educational expenses are exceptionally high. The high cost of living is pushing low-income married couples to satellite cities outside Seoul, whose quality of life is considered wanting. For the first time in decades, Seoul’s population is decreasing, with young couples moving out of the capital.
But rapid declines in population mean bad news for businesses and industries which are being forced to rely on imported foreign labor. Manpower shortage is especially acute in construction and shipbuilding sectors which Korean workers avoid as “3-D” jobs, short for Dirty, Dangerous, and Difficult. The worst labor shortage is in the shipbuilding sector, which is forced to rely on tens of thousands of foreign workers as welders and machine workers. Even inexperienced workers are invited for local training at company expense for eventual full-time hiring.
Shortages in the service sector remain similarly acute, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic stopped new arrivals. In Seoul and elsewhere, this has meant quite a few restaurants closing down for lack of waiters and cooks.
According to recent media reports, the falling birth rate has also had unexpected impact on medical professions, with fewer doctors entering the practice of pediatrics and obstetrics that specialize in childbirth and children’s medicine. According to one newspaper report, President Yoon was recently shocked to learn that mothers with emergency medical attention for their children have had a hard time finding children’s hospitals in their neighborhoods, presumably because they were no longer popular among medical practitioners. Yoon has promised complaining parents that the government will see to it that more universities produce doctors specializing in children’s medical needs.
In another unexpected area of impact, dwindling nuptials are also affecting jewelry shops along Seoul’s famed Chongno shopping district, where many prospective brides and bridegrooms go shopping for nuptial rings. A recent report by the Korea Economic Journal said the jewelry business for the spring nuptial season has fallen to KRW819.7 billion last year, down from KRW1.37 trillion in 2016. This represents a big drop in diamond sales for wedding rings favored by newlyweds. The declining business has led to more and more traditional jewelry shops closing with For Rent Signs.
As media reports like these fill up local newspaper space, few young men and women are holding their breath in anticipation of Yoon’s next announcement.
“Don’t expect too much from government policy,” cautioned a middle-aged university professor at a woman’s college in Seoul. “Unless social conditions make it better to have more children, and traditional family culture changes,” she said, “the problem (of falling birthrate) isn’t going to change.”