South Korea invests in encouraging the country’s fertility, but the population wants fewer children – MPI

South Korea invests in encouraging the country’s fertility, but the population wants fewer children

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Despite government efforts, including a massive $200 billion investment in birth incentives, the population in South Korea is resisting the idea of having children. Recently, South Korea reached a new record low fertility rate in the world. Data released in November revealed that the average number of children per South Korean woman had dropped to 0.79 over her lifetime. This figure is significantly below the replacement level needed to maintain a stable population, which is 2.1, and is even lower than that recorded in other developed countries like the United States (1.6) and Japan, which hit its lowest recorded rate, 1.3.

This decline in the fertility rate poses problems for South Korea, especially due to its aging population and the impending shortage of workers to support the pension system. While the causes are often associated with economic factors such as high property prices, educational costs, and financial anxiety, the problem has proven resistant to successive government attempts to address it, even with significant investments.

Critics point out that this issue transcends the economy and requires a change in approach. However, it remains uncertain whether the government is willing to listen and act in the face of this challenge.

During a visit to a daycare center in September, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol admitted that over $200 billion had been spent in an attempt to increase the population over the past 16 years. However, since taking office in May, his government has presented few ideas to solve the problem, besides continuing along the same lines – creating a committee to discuss the issue and promising even more financial support for newborns. A monthly subsidy for parents with babies up to 1 year old will increase from the current 300,000 won to 700,000 won (US$230 to US$540) by 2023 and to 1 million South Korean won (US$770) by 2024, according to the Yoon government.

During his nursery visit, Yoon expressed surprise that babies and young children were not being cared for at home and seemed to suggest that it was common for 6-month-old babies to be able to walk, leading to criticism that he is out of touch with the issue (the average age for babies to walk is 12 months).

Many experts believe that the current approach of throwing money at the problem is too one-dimensional and that what is needed instead is lifelong support for the child.

Visiting the stalls at a recent baby fair was Kim Min-jeong. She criticizes the government’s promise of more funds, saying, “They changed names and merged benefits, but for parents like us, there are no more benefits.”

The problem she faces, she said, is that she hasn’t been able to work since her first child was born because she and her husband can’t afford private daycare.

Government-funded daycares are free, but a handful of scandals in recent years involving caregivers abusing babies have put off many parents. While the cases have been minimal, they have been widely publicized.

In addition to economic challenges, deeply rooted social issues are also hindering prospective parents in South Korea, and these problems are likely to persist regardless of financial efforts.

One such issue is the existence of unwritten norms regarding parenthood. While it is highly valued for couples to have children, South Korean society still strongly disapproves of single parents. Single women do not have access to in vitro fertilization treatment, as indicated by official hospital data.

Law professor Cho Hee-kyoung, who addresses social issues in her newspaper column, notes that a puritanical mindset persists regarding single mothers in South Korean society. She questions why getting pregnant out of wedlock is seen as a mistake, questioning the need for marriage to raise a child.

Additionally, couples in non-traditional relationships also face discrimination. South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriage, and regulations make it difficult for unmarried couples to adopt.

Lee Jin-song, author of books on the trend of young people avoiding marriage and parenthood, highlights the need for fertility rate increase policies that embrace a wider range of family setups. He notes that current policies tend to favor the traditional idea of heterosexual marriage, excluding people with disabilities, illnesses, or reproductive health issues.

Lee pointed to a common joke in South Korea: “If you’re not dating by 25, you’ll turn into a crane,” meaning if you’re single, you’ll become non-human. She noted that society labels people like her as selfish for not following traditional expectations of marriage and children, “neglecting their duties to society just for their own happiness.”

Lee highlighted pressures on women to have children in a patriarchal society that is evolving slowly. “Marriage, childbirth, and childcare demand a lot of sacrifices from women in a patriarchal society, especially in the last decade. So they’re starting to explore the possibility of living well without getting married.”

Professor Cho agreed, noting that there persists a social expectation for the father to sacrifice for the career while the mother supports the family, even if she also works. “I know many couples where women earn more money than men, but when they come home, it’s the women who have to do the housework, take care of the children, and provide emotional support to the husband.”

Meanwhile, husbands who want to be more involved in child-rearing face obstacles due to South Korea’s corporate culture, which does not always allow for such flexibility. Although parental leave has been increased on paper, few feel comfortable fully taking advantage of it.

There is widespread fear that workers prioritizing family will rarely be recognized or promoted. “It would be positive if companies consider employees with children, excluding them from evening events or dinners, for example,” said one interviewee.

In South Korea, work doesn’t end when the workday ends. There’s a deeply ingrained culture of “after-work socializing,” and it’s frowned upon to miss these events.

Lee, who worked at a brokerage before founding her own company, chose to leave the workforce seven years ago, feeling there was no viable alternative to juggling her career with raising children as she didn’t want to put them in daycare.

“Raising a child is something very valuable, meaningful, and rewarding on a personal level, but sometimes it feels like it’s not properly valued in society,” Lee observed.

Danielle Berry
Danielle Berry

an editor at MPI since 2023.

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