South Korea is fast approaching an unwanted demographic milestone: its fertility rate (the number of babies a woman of reproductive age in a particular country will have on average) is set to hit an all-time low and to dip below one for the first time. The fertility rate at which a population reproduces itself naturally is about 2.1 for developed nations. South Korea’s rate is far below this replacement level and is falling. Indeed, it has been falling since the 1960s.
According to the Guardian, the study was commissioned by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper and one of its authors was Lee Chul-hee, an economics professor at Seoul National University. He notes that such a low fertility rate is normally only seen in wartime, when people have other things on their minds. He further warned that social welfare schemes (healthcare, pensions) will face shortfalls as the population ages and there are fewer people coming through the ranks into the work force. Classrooms will be closed while underfunded pensions, a smaller tax base and expanding debt are expected to be the consequences of this low fertility rate. Of more existential consequence, there will be fewer potential soldiers to serve in the armed forces to face North Korea (in South Korea all men are conscripted for national service).
So what is driving this historically low fertility rate? The worsening job prospects for young people, the rising property prices and the fear women have of discrimination at work if they leave to start a family are all blamed. The average age for marriage has also risen sharply in thealst few decades: in 1990 the average South Korean woman got married at the age of 24.8. The average age is now sitting at 30.2. On average, South Korean women have their first child at 31.6 years of age.
As we have reported before, financial incentives and initiatives by the Government of South Korea (worth 153tn won between 2006 and 2018) are not addressing the deeper issues. Further, the fertility rate, even if it is raised in the coming years, in some ways is not the major issue. Lee Chul-hee noted that it is the decline in the absolute number of babies being born that is the real issue. Even if the fertility rate rises, it will be among a shrinking pool of women. And we have already seen the drastic decline in the number of South Korean babies. This demographic crisis is not going away any time soon.