South Korea’s total fertility rate, the number of children an average woman is expected to have over her lifetime, was just 0.72 in 2023. This figure is a mere third of the 2.1 minimum required for population maintenance and signals a significant demographic crisis. In the last three months of 2023, the rate further decreased to 0.65, with projections suggesting it may drop to around 0.6 for 2024.

At this pace, Statistics Korea forecasts that the population will fall to approximately 36 million in 50 years. This is a stark contrast to the population growth from 32 million in 1970 to 50 million in 2012, now rapidly reversing as if the population boom were a fleeting dream.

Such a sharp population decline is unprecedented globally. It results in a shrinking workforce, an economy under strain, and increased demands on the social safety net, all while societal aging reduces innovation.

In response, the South Korean government plans to establish the “Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter-Planning.” Despite substantial public funding, the problem continues to escalate.

Understanding the Low Birth Rates

Addressing South Korea’s plummeting birth rates, Thomas Frey, a futurist and founder of the DaVinci Institute, has proposed four “strategies for reversal.” As a former IBM engineer and prominent futurist, Frey has given lectures in South Korea and globally since 2010.

“South Korea stands at a crossroads that calls for decisive action,” Frey writes on his blog. “To reverse this trend and reinvigorate the nation’s demographic vitality, a multifaceted strategy is essential — one that rethinks existing social structures and addresses the complex web of factors that contribute to the decision to start a family.”

Frey identifies three major factors contributing to low fertility rates: economic constraints, cultural and social pressures, and educational burdens. These include high unemployment and job competition, high housing costs, societal expectations on women raising children, and intense competition among students necessitating costly private education.

Lowering the Barriers to Starting a Family

The first of Frey’s strategies is enhancing family-friendly policies such as extended parental leave, greater paternity leave, and flexible work arrangements.

By providing longer leave for both mothers and fathers, Frey argues that “parents are given valuable time to bond with their newborns without the stress of a rapid return to work.” Additionally, greater paternity leave “encourages fathers to take an active role early in their children’s lives,” promoting “shared parenting responsibilities” and “more gender equality in childrearing.”

Regarding work arrangements, Frey argues that companies need to offer telecommuting options, flexible work hours, and part-time work to “help parents balance their professional and personal lives,” which would “reduce the perceived incompatibility between career ambitions and starting a family.”

Frey’s second strategy involves financial incentives, which he argues “can significantly lower the barriers to starting a family.” Specifically, Frey advocates for housing subsidies to reduce living costs, child allowances as “regular stipends to families with children,” and education cost reduction.

Change is Not Optional, But Vital for Survival

The third strategy involves changing the country’s work culture and gender norms. This includes reducing work hours, destigmatizing parental leave, and promoting the “equitable sharing of domestic tasks.”

The fourth strategy is supportive child care systems. Frey calls for accessible child care to alleviate the “primary logistical hurdles faced by working parents,” state investment in “the training and compensation of child care providers to raise the quality and appeal of child care as a profession,” and incentives for employers that “encourage businesses to provide onsite child care or child care assistance.”

“As we stand at the threshold of significant demographic shifts,” Frey writes, “the strategies for reversal are not merely optional — they are imperative.”

Frey argues that through his strategies, South Korea “could foster an environment that not only stabilizes the birth rate but also promotes a healthier work-life balance, creating a resilient and thriving society for future generations.”

By Impact Lab