The number of newborns in South Korea has dropped to another record low, reflecting the country’s ever-declining birthrate. According to a report released by Statistics Korea on February 28, 357,700 babies were born in 2017, down 11 percent from the previous year. This is particularly alarming since it is the first time that the number has fallen below the 400-thousand mark. The fertility rate, or the average number of babies that a woman is expected to have during her lifetime, also hit a record low of 1.05 last year. Here is Kim Jin-soo, professor of the Social Welfare Department at Yonsei University, to analyze some factors of South Korea’s chronically low birthrate and possible countermeasures. First, Professor Kim talks about why the birthrate issue is considered so serious.
The number of newborns last year slipped below the psychologically-important 400-thousand mark, overshadowing the government’s longtime efforts to tackle the low birthrate. It took about 100 years in general for European countries to see their fertility rate of 4.0 fall to 1.6, while it took only 15 years for South Korea to experience the same change. Such a fast decline in the birthrate means that the nation has inadequate time to prepare for the change. South Korea’s fertility rate in the 1960s was 6.0, but the figure plummeted to 1.05 in 2017. It shows that the rate has decreased rapidly and also drastically.
In the 1970s, one million babies were born in South Korea. But the number dropped to the 400-thousand range in 2002 and reached an all-time low last year since data began to be compiled in 1970. Korea is the only country in the world that the number of newborns has been reduced by more than half in just one generation. The rapidly- falling fertility rate is also a grave problem. Countries with a rate below 1.3 are called “ultra-low birthrate societies.” South Korea’s rate of 1.05 last year marks the lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD. Why is Korea’s fertility rate declining so fast?
There are various factors to determine the fertility rate. Before having a child, couples take a lot of things into consideration, including pregnancy, childbirth, childcare and education. Working couples, in particular, wonder who will take care of their kids while they are working and how they can afford to pay for their children’s private lessons. Many of them choose to have only one child or give up on having kids altogether. And some people even find it difficult to tie the knot, not to mention having children. There are multiple factors, not just one reason, that affect the birthrate.
Statistics Korea attributed the trend to the decline in the number of people in their 20s and 30s of the childbearing age and the falling number of marriages, which remained at 260-thousand last year. In particular, the number of babies born to women in their early 30s fell sharply, with births per 1,000 women in that age group plunging below 100 for the first time. Other factors contributing to the diminishing number of newborns include the financial burden of child rearing, a record-high youth unemployment rate, a growing number of women engaging in economic activities and gender discrimination in the labor market. If the trend continues, many serious problems will inevitably arise.
The low birthrate is an extremely big problem. Economists and sociologists are concerned that the decreasing working-age population will cause the Korean economy to lose steam, with the nation possibly trapped in low growth. One of the questions in this rapidly aging society is who will pay the increasing medical expenses of the elderly people. Pensions are another problem. It will be impossible to maintain the pension system if those who are economically active do not shoulder the financial burden. The social insurance system will then be meaningless. The government will have to collect more taxes to resolve various social problems, including senior citizens living in poverty. But it will be far from easy to raise the necessary money through taxes.
The low birthrate is feared to reduce the workforce and slow down the economy, while the aging population will drive up medical costs and pension payments to give a tremendous shock to society. At least 400,000 babies should be born in a year to ease the shock, but the number of newborn babies last year fell below that psychologically-significant level. Also on a negative note, the working-age population last year declined 1.6 percent from a year ago to start going down. If the current trend continues, South Korea is expected to see a drop in population in five years from now. To prevent that, the government has poured a massive amount of money into relevant policies. Nevertheless, the birthrate keeps falling.
The government has so far spent more than 100 trillion won, which is about 89 billion US dollars, to lift the birthrate. But it was all in vain, as the birthrate has never made a rebound. The government is criticized for using some of those funds for rather unrelated areas. Also, it once actively encouraged young people to get married, in the belief that those who marry early would have more kids. In the opposite way, however, it turned out that, in many cases, those who could already afford to have children chose to get married. In another problem, the government’s policy was mostly focused on providing benefits to a second or third child in the family, although it should have started from a first child in the beginning. When formulating policies about marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and childcare, the government has to wonder what women really need, as if it is their own mother. So far, the government has simply pushed young people to marry and provided tax benefits. But as you see, the policy has been ineffective.
In 2006, the government came up with its first plan to cope with the nation’s low birthrate and aging society. It has since implemented its second and third plans on a five-year basis. Since 2013, it has been providing childcare subsidies to all families with children aged five and under. However, childbirth policies have mostly been about financial aid, despite the fact that childbirth and childcare are affected by various factors, including housing and education. In brief, the government has failed to solve the problem in a fundamental way. Experts are saying the government, though belatedly, should devise long-term and comprehensive measures.
It is impossible to raise the fertility rate drastically, to something like 2.0, anytime soon. We can’t expect that. Germany provides childcare subsidies of an average of 360 US dollars per month. In addition, it also offers various support programs, including parental leave. Even so, Germany’s fertility rate stands at 1.4. It shows that it is pretty challenging to raise the birthrate. The government should drop the idea that a particular policy will simply prompt people to have more children. This problem cannot be solved through only one policy, and the government should consider various and complex issues in society. It also needs to come up with support programs tailored to individuals to encourage more people to have kids. The central and local governments and the private sector should work together to create feasible plans that will hopefully give practical help to those who consider having children.
It seems urgent to change Koreans’ common way of thinking and accept the new idea, “When women have children, the state will raise them.” It is necessary for Korea to face up the stark reality of the downbeat trend in the number of newborns and work out long-term plans to overhaul the social practices that hinder pregnancy, childbirth and childcare so the nation will be able to overcome the birthrate crisis effectively.