Three keys to a higher birthrate

2022. 8. 17. 19:45
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The notoriously low birthrate of Korea is a composite of stifling culture, irrelevant systems and inefficient public policies. All three must be corrected to normalize birthrates.

Kim Byung-yeonThe author is a professor of economics and head of the Institute for Future Strategy, Seoul National University. South Korea is looking at two ticking bombs — one is North Korean nuclear programs and the other is the low birthrate. South Korea’s viability hinges on its ability to remove the bombs before they blow up. Resolving the North Korean nuclear threat is not entirely an impossibility. There is a government office devoted to North Korean issues. But a solution to the demographic danger has not been found. There is no government office overseeing the affair, either. The government earmarked 43 trillion won ($33 billion) in budgetary spending last year alone to address low birthrates. From 2006, the cumulative spending exceeds 200 trillion won. But the total fertility rate fell to 0.81 last year from 1.48 in 2000.

Without reversing the trend in birthrates, South Korea would entirely lose vitality. Innovation would become difficult and the growth rate in the longer run would stagnate. Reform in the pension would be of no use. Due to weakening in national capabilities, the country would not be able to survive amongst global powers. All governments have been increasing spending randomly instead of identifying the exact cause and focusing on the necessary fixes. A more fundamental — and comprehensive — approach is needed to solve our utterly low birthrates.

Policies, systems and culture are the key to reverse the trend. The structural cause behind the slide in birthrates is increased female participation in the labor market. When women join the market, the opportunity cost in births soars. The government must support births and childcare to lessen the opportunity cost by easing the disadvantages for women for their loss of years. In Korea’s case, the opportunity cost from giving birth and raising kids is even higher due to Korea’s systems and culture.

Without synchronized changes in the policies, systems and culture, the birthrate cannot increase. The government, business, religious and other parts of society must join forces to address the problem.

The public policy must be in a “big push” and not in pieces. Getting married and giving birth are one of the most important decisions in life. Lifetime income, jobs, housing, and career among others must be comprehensively considered. The subsidy of 1 million won hardly encourages young people to get married and have kids. Instead of temporary hiring and petty cash handouts, money should be wisely spent to enhance childcare and housing. System reforms must take place to create stable jobs. But housing, childcare and career management could be partly addressed through public policies.

Labor, education and welfare systems also should be adjusted. The birthrate has been sinking since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s that caused massive layoffs. In the past, college graduates were ensured lifetime jobs upon graduation. Because life was predictable, family planning was relatively easy at the time. But the world changed since the crisis. The elderly make up the mainstream in the labor market, while young novices are just outsiders. Although they were better educated and skilled, they have to start career on a non-permanent basis just because they were born later. Salaries are meager, and they don’t know when they will be laid off. Childcare and education are particularly expensive in Korea. Without fixing the unfair and rigid labor market and unreasonable education system, the birthrate won’t go up. To reform labor and education, welfare must be enhanced, and systems redesigned to set the political grounds.

Culture also must change. Culture can have fundamental influence over births. In their study of second-generation immigrants in America, Raquel Fernandez and Alessandra Fogli discovered the culture of the country of ancestry had influenced fertility outcomes. Women from a country with high birthrates had more children than those from countries of low fertility. What type of culture influences fertility? A society where parents take responsibility for the future of children — and a highly competitive society — tends to have a low birthrate. Under such a culture, families should have fewer children to help them survive better in the society.

Overcompetition is the biggest culprit behind South Korea’s pitiful fertility rate. Mothers have to compete for diapers, powder milk brands and trolley brands. Private tuition starts from the kindergarten age. To survive in the cut-throat battlefield, the mother must act as the commander in chief, father as resource provider and child as warrior. Birth in Korea has become a start of a war rather than a blessing. When it matters what school and neighborhood one came from, birthrates are bound to hit the bottom.

The notoriously low birthrate of Korea is a composite of stifling culture, irrelevant systems and inefficient public policies. All three must be corrected to normalize birthrates. The Korean society must encourage the power of value, not material and ownership. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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