What can we learn from South Korea’s low fertility rate?

South Korea, Seoul Tower. A large portion of the population lives in or near the capital. Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric/Pexels

South Korea’s fertility rate has dropped to 0.78, which is the lowest among all countries. Everybody knows the reason for this serious crisis — except for the government and politicians.  There are many factors that led to the extremely low birth rate, but here are the main reasons why. First, the social awareness for millennials and Gen Z of starting a traditional family and raising children has fallen. This results from a combination of economic factors, South Korea’s culture and women’s empowerment. Many of the people from this generation have seen how people’s lifestyles drastically change after what happens when they get married. Unconditional sacrifice for the family is required for men and especially women. It is hard for men to get parental leave and women are expected to quit their jobs to raise children. However, it is hard for only one parent to support the family’s income, and therefore many couples choose not to have children or to have only one.  

Besides, most women do not like the idea of taking care of children and doing all the housework after completing their higher education and would like to fulfill their careers. Mothers are still expected to take a bigger part in the child’s life and this kind of patriarchy is prevalent to this day in many countries including the United States. For example, if we think about a parent who asks their boss to take a day off because their child is sick, we will instantly think of the mother, not the father in this scenario. To add, if the father asked for a day off for the same reason, the boss would most likely ask “Where’s the child’s mother?”. Women are treated as someone’s mom or someone’s wife instead of an individual person, and many younger women, including myself, have seen this happen to our own mothers, aunts and grandmothers.  

This is not to say that living by women’s traditional roles is not valuable and should be abandoned. Rather, in this generation, women have a broader choice of what they want and how they would like to live their lives, which inevitably leads to a lower fertility rate than in the past when not as many choices were available. No matter how much the government gives out subsidies for childbirth and tries to encourage it, they cannot change the decisions of women who are not interested in marriage or having children and would like to focus on other aspects of life.  

Nevertheless, the government should support couples who want children but are hesitant because of the cost of raising a child.  About 17% of South Korea’s population currently resides in Seoul and 53% of the population live in Seoul and in nearby cities. This means that Seoul has 2 million more people and is 1.7 times denser than New York City. Most Koreans living in these areas live in compacted apartments, in apartment buildings that have an average of 15.69 floors. This is a major problem in South Korea as all the important infrastructures and facilities are in the city of Seoul. Unfortunately, this leads to high costs of housing, living and raising a child. As more people are getting higher education, many couples are interested in having a child only if they can provide more than enough for their offspring. It is not like in the past when people would just have as many kids as they can to help with farming, support the family economy, or the sad fact that they would keep trying until they have a son. Right now, because of the private education fee due to a very competitive society, other costs of raising a child, the already existing housing fees and other massive bills to pay, not many people are willing to put their child through this difficult world.  

What can this crisis in South Korea tell other countries? One thing is that the low fertility rate is just a domino in the middle of all the problems in a country. Every societal problem can lead to it and every problem can come after. Raising the fertility rate is much harder than controlling it and developing countries like the United States should also think about the consequences that may follow in the near future.    

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