We are all after beauty, meaning, love and truth.  Or are we? 

Childbirth, love and marriage, so central to the drama of human life, have become “just a pain” for young people in South Korea, according to Prof. Lee Sam-sik of Hanyang University. In fact, many don't even date anymore.

The country's total fertility rate dropped from 1.05 in 2017, already a record low, to .98 children per woman over their life time in 2018, according to data released by Statistics Korea late last month. Korea is the only country in the OECD whose fertility rate has dropped below 1. The number of marriages has also fallen for the last seven years, and was at an all time low last year. 

According to Prof. Lee Sam-sik,

“The low total fertility rate below 1 suggests that childbirth and marriage are losing their value.” 

Other countries, such as Japan, are seeing the same phenomenon.

The erosion of marriage and family does not just mean an end to experiences such as pledging your love to a partner you hope will support you all your life and holding your newborn baby in your arms for many young people, it also means the elderly will be left much more vulnerable as traditional social structures decline.

Why is marriage and family no longer attractive to young people? 

The answer is likely a complex one, which owes something to a culture of individualism, devalued sex, technology addiction, and making an idol of work and “careers”.  Among the OECD countries, South Korea has the longest work hours.  Both South Korea and Japan also have similar family cultures in which, despite women increasingly wishing to balance careers with a family, men do little to help out in family life.  An article published in The Conversation discusses this issue in relation to South Korea:

“Women have gained more opportunities outside marriage, but within marriage, men have not correspondingly increased their contribution to housework and childcare. As a result, for many women, being married is no longer an attractive option. With diminishing returns to gender-specialized marriage for highly educated women, they are likely to delay or forgo marriage.”

Marcus has previously argued that Japanese fathers need to help out more around the house and change their working culture of long hours and work social events, and the same seems to apply in South Korea. 

The role of mothers is valuable to society, but we are in an age where female CEOs are celebrated far more.  Perhaps Korean women need to be celebrated far more for the societal contribution they make through their role as mothers.  And men need to play their role in the home, recognising that a culture where men are never at home and don't respect the importance of family time and helping out is ultimately unsustainable and soul-less.

Cultural expectations around marriage also contribute to women not bothering with it at all.  Perhaps some of these cultural practices, such as expensive gifts being exchanged between families and hugely expensive wedding celebrations, need to change if they are contributing to putting people off marriage altogether.

The South Korean government is committed to taking action in order to try to meet its fertility rate target of 1.6 by 2020 (a target which now seems unlikely to be met), and they are trying to resolve some of the issues families face.  Over the past decade, the government is reported to have spent a total of over 200 trillion South Korean won (US$177 billion) on measures to encourage women to give birth, such as increased maternity pay, flexible working hours, and state daycare and kindy.  The government even pays the high school tuition fees for second children born from 2011 onwards, and banks give preferential interest rates on loans to families with multiple children.

Adding to the fertility problem, more people are also choosing to get married later in life, so are naturally only able to have fewer children.  Last year women in their late 30s had more children than those in their late 20s, the first full reversal of the traditional pattern. Only 10 years ago, the birthrate among those in their late 20s was nearly four times as high as among those in their late 30s.

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny   

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...