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Despite enticing incentives from the government, South Korean women struggle with the choice to leave their careers to raise children.  The modern South Korean woman is ambitious.  She has worked hard for her career and is hesitant to give it up.  Although it is probably what her mother did as her sole occupation, for some being at home now seems mundane in comparison to the many goals and promises that a career provides.

This poses a problem for the future of the South Korean workforce.  South Korea is ageing faster than any other country in the OECD.  Somewhat alarmingly, the number of South Koreans of working age will peak in just three years’ time, according to OECD predictions.

Current fertility rates mean the problem will not be quickly resolved.  South Korea’s fertility rate remains low and is currently at 1.3 children per woman.  The average South Korean woman now waits until after her 30th birthday to start a family, and an increasing number of women decide to never marry, with that number rising from 9% in 2000 to 15% today. 

Interestingly, the Economist in its latest issue raises the idea that a sort of social injustice results between those who expend time and money, while sacrificing income as well, to bring up children and those who choose to remain childless in high flying careers, or maybe to just have one.  It argues:

When the childless retire, they will rely on the labour of the next generation to provide for them. Even if they have saved for their own pension, most of what they buy with their retirement funds will be produced by the working generation of the day. But the childless will not have contributed much to the cost of raising that generation. Parents, by raising the next generation of workers, are helping to make everyone’s retirement more comfortable. The South Korean government has recognised this by promising more generous pensions to women with more than one child.

The government is exploring two other solutions to the baby-strike. One is to make it easier for working parents to look after their own children by extending parental leave and shortening the working week. The other is to offer help with getting someone else to look after the children.

Further financial incentives could well make a difference given that many South Koreans say that they would like more children.  According to a survey by the Hyundai Research Institute, 58% of adults want two children and 13.5% want three.  However, expectations of education and input are so high that they are put off by the expense of raising them.  It will be interesting to see if promises such as a higher pension in old age for those with children make a difference.

South Korea’s dilemma raises the question of whether more family financial incentives could make a difference around the world.  As more people realise the financial crisis that an alarming drop in the workforce brings they may well be more in favour of supporting those who produce our future workforce.  The view of many may soon be that it is those who remain childless that in fact take a lot more from society without putting in any of the work and financial sacrifice to create a future for us all.  This is an interesting shift as I would say currently that people tend to think the opposite – i.e. that it is those with children who take more. 

Although, I’m not entirely au fait with child-rearing being described as a ‘burden’ or being examined in purely economic terms – parents ultimately gain a lot of joy – it is also good to realise that children do benefit our future economy and hence the whole of our ageing society.  Those who raise children are performing a crucial societal role.

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...