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Bye bye babies

By Sarah Shin
web posted November 12, 2018

My grandmother tells me stories about a war-torn Korea all the time. She tells me about her family’s flight from the North to the South and the tragedy of losing siblings along the way. She tells me about what it felt like to sleep in church attics in South Korea. She tells me about the wretched poverty in South Korea after the war and her decision to immigrate to North America to pursue a better life. That image of a devastated country stands in direct contrast to the South Korea of today: a booming economy and the world’s fastest internet connection even in the rural farmland regions of the country. South Korea made one of history’s most successful economic comebacks after the Korean War, and yet 65 years later, there soon may not be many people around in the country to appreciate it. After all, South Koreans are kind of going extinct—or if not extinct, then they’re perhaps becoming endangered.

All right, before you jump out of your socks in surprise—and maybe a little bit of skepticism—let’s cement that claim with some statistics. According to The Economist, in 2017, South Korea had a fertility rate of 1.05 children per woman, specifically with Seoul (the capital of the country) having an even lower fertility rate at 0.84. To put this in perspective, for a country to have a sustainable population, the fertility rate should be around 2. Not only is South Korea nowhere near that number with the lowest fertility rate in the world, but it’s also still shrinking, with fertility rates projected to drop even more to 0.96 in 2019, according to a study done by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
South Korea's diminishing resource?
South Korea's diminishing resource?

What exactly does this entail? First of all, dozens of schools are closing due to lack of children, with 3,600 schools having been shut down since 1982. Not only does this illustrate the sheer lack of kids in the country, it also suggests that teachers are in danger of losing their jobs, simply because they do not have enough pupils. Another potential consequence is the loss of soldiers in the South Korean army. As the policy stands now, because of the constant threat of North Korea, if a man is a South Korean citizen and is between the ages of 18 and 35, he’s required to enlist in the army for two years. The fact that the population is aging means that the army may face a shortage of soldiers due to the fact that the younger population pool is becoming smaller and smaller as the years pass. Finally, there’s economic growth. The threat to economic growth is a very real one, as a smaller population will be unable to fully pay and support important governmental programs, such as healthcare. On top of that, an elderly population will also be unable to work as successfully or productively as a younger population in general, inhibiting the economy with a shrinking labor market. All in all, the negative effects of such a low birth rate are vast, hurting both society and the economy.

The solution to this issue seems simple: women should just have more babies. Why is it so hard for them to just have more children? To fully understand this dilemma, you really need to go into Korean culture. Korean culture has historically always embraced a patriarchal society—one that revolves around the success and leadership of men. Today, modern South Korea has women who are both very well-educated, yet according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea has one of the largest gender wage gaps in the world, with women earning 63% of what men earn. This work culture encourages the mindset that if a woman has a child, she’s more liable to be laid off or lose a promotion or have her wages cut even more. All in all, this situation breeds this sense of fear into the situation for a woman with family, making it so that, more often than not, a woman will leave the workforce altogether if she wants to have children. Korean culture is also one that shames motherhood outside of marriage, so single, unmarried mothers are looked down upon, creating this culture grounded in shame instead of being uplifting. On top of that, although a law is in place that requires companies to offer up to one year of paid parent leave, according to a survey done by MIT, only about 48% of the companies investigated complied with this law, illustrating how difficult it can be to have a family and work at the same time.

Phew, so if you’ve followed through this deluge of information with me, we finally come to the real question: How can South Korea effectively encourage a higher fertility rate? This question is tough to deal with because not only does it require encouragement from the government, it also requires a change in culture by creating an environment that helps to nurture and care for mothers in and out of the workplace. One step that government could take towards this goal is first of all to fight for the equality of women in the workplace by closing the wage gap. This may mean implementing an affirmative action program to open up opportunities for women in the workplace or to actually pass a law that requires companies to distribute equal pay to both men and women. Another recommendation is to enforce the law that already exists about providing a parent leave in order to ensure that parents are receiving support perhaps by requiring companies to pay a fine if they don’t comply. Finallythere should be a support system in place for single mothers (and also single fathers) to encourage a positive mindset towards parenthood in general, whether it be to open daycares within the workplace or even breastfeeding rooms (which they have in the United States). This is such an incredibly complex issue since it’s ingrained in South Korean culture, but if the country truly wants to increase the fertility rate, those changes need to be made to avoid economic decline. ESR

Sarah Shin is a high school student studying AP Macroeconomics. © 2018 Sarah Shin

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