Author: Andrew Eunji Kim, Korea University
South Korea’s fertility rate – the number of children born to mothers in their lifetime – has fallen again to a record low of 0.78 in 2022, the lowest in the world. The fertility rate in the country is expected to drop to 0.61 in the next few years.
It’s a worrying trend to say the least because the fertility rate needed to keep the population stable—the replacement level fertility—is 2.1, which means South Korea’s fertility rate is just over a third of the fertility rate necessary to maintain its current population. For comparison, the average fertility rate in member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was 1.6 in 2020.
This low fertility rate has already made South Korea the fastest aging society in the world. Another factor behind the country’s rapid population aging is its high life expectancy at birth, which was 83.5 years in 2020 – the third highest in the world. If the current fertility rate continues, South Korea’s population – which has already declined since 2020 – could drop from its current level of 51 million to 34 million by 2067.
The persistence of the abnormally low fertility rate will have severe consequences for the South Korean economy. The most obvious problem will be the decline in the economically active population (those between the ages of 15 and 64) from 37.4 million in 2015 to 20.6 million in 2065 — a drop of more than 55 percent in 50 years. Other potential problems include shrinking consumption, dwindling investment, budget imbalances (government spending on the elderly will rise while tax revenues fall) and pension shortages.
There are many factors behind the low birth rate in South Korea. First, South Koreans typically marry at an older age due to longer schooling — 73.3 percent of high school graduates had a college education in 2022, perhaps the highest in the world — and work commitments. The average age of South Korean mothers at their first birth was 33.5 in 2022, compared to the OECD average of 28.3 in 2019.
Secondly, an increasing number of people remain single. Situational factors, such as lack of financial resources and job insecurity, are the main reasons for their unmarried status.
Third, all adults in South Korea are acutely aware of the “educational hell” in the country. They themselves experienced a lack of free time, going to countless schools after school and the pressure to excel in school while not doing so resulted in feelings of guilt and shame.
Fourth, the costs of education in the country are very high. Almost 80 percent of students in primary and secondary education take private lessons. South Korean parents also spend more than US$400 per student per month, although the actual figure is believed to be much higher and higher-income families spend much more than lower-income families.
Fifth, there is widespread pessimism about the country’s future. Children are more likely to have their own children if they believe that their children will live a better life than theirs. But this is not the case in South Korea, where there is a widespread belief that one needs to be economically well-off in order to be successful. South Koreans believe that education, especially a degree from a reputed university, is a major means to success but realize that it takes a lot of money to achieve such a goal.
The vast majority of students who attend elite universities in South Korea come from a relatively wealthy family background. This is explained by the fact that high-income families can send their children to the most expensive and best-educated schools.
Finally, the perceived value of having a baby has changed. Many young people, convinced that having a baby involves a lot of work and stress, now want to avoid the financial stress of starting a family. They also want to have time for themselves and time with their partners and friends, to have more time and energy to focus on their careers and to maintain their freedom and independence.
The record low fertility rate has prompted the government to implement a number of policies to reverse this trend, spending billions of dollars each year to stimulate parenting since the early 2000s. Some of the initiatives include cash maternity bonuses, child allowance support, child care benefits, extended maternity and paternity leave, free medical exams for pregnant women, and support for medical expenses for children.
All these efforts to increase the fertility rate in the country have failed. But some steps can still be taken to mitigate the problem.
Reforming the education system in South Korea is one option. Parents should not have to spend a lot of money on private education. Children should have time to play and participate in extracurricular activities and lower and middle class children should have more chances of gaining admission to prestigious universities and professional degree programs regardless of parental wealth.
South Korea must also change its immigration policy so that migrant workers, who currently must leave South Korea at the end of their employment contracts, can obtain permanent residency and citizenship.
Andrew Eunji Kim is a professor in the Department of International Studies at Korea University.