South Korea has the world's lowest fertility rate, a struggle with lessons for us all
Yun-Jeong Kim grew up imagining what her future family would look like — married with several kids, a nice home and a dog. But when the lease on her apartment in Seoul, South Korea, became too much to afford, she found herself somewhere she'd never imagined: 31 years old and living back at home with her younger brother and their parents.
Kim, a product designer and art instructor, calls her hopes of one day having children "just a fantasy" — especially now, when housing costs are soaring, the job market is oversaturated and marriage rates are plummeting.
"I can't believe that [not having children] is the current situation in Korea," she said. "But this is the reality."
It's a reality that has left the country with the lowest fertility rate in the world since 2013. Across South Korea, women are choosing to have fewer children — or none at all — as they contend with a rise in the cost of living that has hit young people disproportionately hard. At the same time, marriage rates are down more than 35%, according to the last 10 years of available data, as more South Koreans are increasingly prioritizing work over starting a family.
In South Korea, the fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman in her reproductive years — is now 0.78, according to figures released by the Korean government in February. It could be years before the country can reach the 2.1 rate that experts say is needed for a country to maintain a stable population without migration.
South Korea is far from alone. In 2020, the United States saw 43 states register their lowest fertility rates in at least three decades. And the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2034, people 65 and older will outnumber those under the age of 18 for the first time in U.S. history. In January, China also recorded its first population decline in decades.
The drop in fertility rates has left countries facing a future of aging populations and shrinking workforces. Fewer young adults working means slower economic growth, which will make it harder for governments to care for older people as they continue to make up a larger share of the population.
South Korea has moved aggressively to stem the decline in births, and its actions provide a model for steps other governments can take to address the issue. But its ongoing struggles also illustrate the complexity of a challenge that is only becoming more salient around the world.
The limits of big spending
South Korea has invested heavily to stem what is now a seven-year decline in the national fertility rate, but it hasn't made much difference. President Yoon Suk Yeol said in September that the government has poured more than $200 billion into programs to support new mothers in the past 16 years alone, only to watch the fertility rate drop more than 25% in that time span.
At the center of the government response is a pledge to increase the stipend given to parents with a child under the age of 1 from 300,000 won per month (about $230) to 1 million won ($765) by 2024.
The country's child care policies are also among the best in the world, according to UNICEF, and continue to expand. The government announced plans in January to increase the paid parental leave period from one year to a year-and-a-half. The U.S., by comparison, has no national paid leave plan, and only about 35% of workers are employed at companies that offer any paid parental leave.
So why does the fertility rate continue to drop?
One problem is that the government's approach is a "Band-Aid solution," said Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
"The child care subsidies, the leaves — these are all things you can visibly see and argue 'Yes, we are making these attempts,'" he said. "But dealing with the structural problems that aren't directly related to fertility, that's a big ship to turn around."
Among the thorniest issues is the lack of affordable housing — particularly in major cities like Seoul that have been drawing growing numbers of young people from the countryside with prospects of better educational and job opportunities.
People in their 20s and 30s often say, "I'll have kids once I have my own place," according to Jessica Ryu, a 27-year-old Korean citizen who is pursuing a postdoctoral degree in communications in the U.S.
But with so much competition for an apartment in Seoul — where 18% of South Korea's population is concentrated — young people are finding it difficult to afford a place of their own, and subsequently, start a family.
Ryu recalled a conversation with her older cousin about her struggles to raise two children, 5 and 7 years old, in Seoul. Her cousin said she would rather the government set up more day care centers than give her a couple of hundred dollars a month, which she said is not enough to cover essentials like diapers and food.
Success may hinge on changing attitudes about family and work
South Korea has one of the longest workweeks of any of the 38 member nations that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). If the country wants to improve its fertility rate, officials need to start by addressing what economist Lyman Stone calls an overarching culture around "workism."
Stone has studied global attitudes toward work and found that countries where people place a high importance on work and derive more personal value from their job are associated with lower fertility rates.
"There's a sense [in South Korea] that, particularly for men but increasingly for women as well, that your contribution in the office is really what makes you a person of status and standing in society, even more than in America," said Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.
But in Korea, where women hold only about 21% of managerial positions and 5% of executive posts, experts say it is not only harder for women to ascend in leadership, but to also survive in the workforce when they have a child.
Yeo said some women may feel averse to taking leave in fear of making managers and co-workers resentful about how that might lower productivity, given the country's hyper-competitive business culture.
"If you've been gone a year-and-a-half, people may not treat you the same way," he said. "Women who take time off may not necessarily return to work, or if they do, they may feel a stigma."
For Ryu, she said having children is not worth sacrificing her career.
"The reality is that one of the parents has to resign from work or take a long break, but the problem is, it's almost always the female or the mom who has to take a leave," she said.
The entrenched patriarchy has set expectations for women to bear the brunt of child rearing and household chores, Stone says, making the idea of raising children even less appealing to many women in their 20s and 30s.
While Ryu hopes to get married one day, Kim said she has ruled out both marriage and children. She blames deeply rooted gender roles in Korea that leave many women sacrificing more of their personal life in marriage than men.
"My mother had three children in her early to mid-20s and I hated seeing her struggle just to take care of us," Kim said. "The family culture in Korea is still very patriarchal, and based on the reality I saw, everything incurs a loss [for the woman] and I don't want to do that."
Anti-feminist sentiments in South Korea are further complicating the fertility issue, according to the journalist Hawon Jung, author of the #MeToo movement book Flowers of Fire. She says that Yoon's anti-feminist stance, including his plan to abolish the country's gender equality ministry, are exacerbating the gender war in South Korea and countering efforts to solve the fertility issue.
"Although no previous governments in South Korea managed to reverse the downward trend in fertility rates for the past decade, the current government's policies could make it even more difficult to tackle the issue than it already is," she said.
The declining marriage rate can be seen as one result of the extreme workism culture, coupled with ongoing gender issues in Korea, experts say.
"[The Korean government] successfully discouraged nonmarital fertility, but they've also very successfully discouraged marriage," Stone said.
And stigma against having children outside of marriage has left Korea with one of the lowest out-of-wedlock birth rates in the OECD. Korea saw 2.5% of births outside marriage in 2020; the U.S., by comparison, recorded 40.5% of births out of wedlock that year.
Finding the right balance
While falling fertility rates have become the norm in most developed countries, experts say there are still important lessons to take from nations that have managed to avoid dramatic declines.
France boasts the highest fertility rate in the European Union at 1.8, while Denmark continues to see fertility rates more than double that of Korea at 1.67.
Driving that success, experts say, is a crucial interplay between attitudes about work and family.
France and Denmark have long been touted for gender egalitarian attitudes that make them more forgiving places for working women who also want to have children. Both countries were among the top 10 countries for working women in 2022, while Korea ranked last, according to The Economist magazine's glass ceiling index. The U.S. was 19, below the OECD average.
Work hours and overall attitudes toward work in Denmark and France are also far more lax than in South Korea, according to Stone. OECD data shows that only 6% of the Denmark workforce and 10% of the French workforce work more than 50 hours a week, compared to 19% in South Korea.
Then there's Latvia and Hungary, where fertility rates have risen more than 20% since 2010. Latvia's case shows how sometimes improving the fertility issue requires some luck. The Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia has attributed the increase to a generation born during a baby boom in the 1980s that has now reached the typical age of marriage and childbearing.
But not all countries with historically high fertility rates are finding it easy to avoid a steep decline.
Denmark's Nordic neighbors of Finland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden have seen some of the largest percentage drops in fertility rates since 2010, according to an analysis of OECD data. Stone said the drop is associated with attitudes also becoming more work-centric.
By addressing work cultures, Stone believes countries with declining populations can boost fertility rates. And nowhere is that more crucial than in Korea, he says.
"[The Korean government] successfully achieved some of the fastest economic growth in human history and the price has been that there isn't a next generation to inherit it," Stone said.