Kid Crunch Millions of Koreans have decided that raising children is too toughTwo or three years after they married, Myung Sung-ok, 34, a successful public relations executive, and her husband, Lee Il-seong, 35, a paralegal, decided they would not have children.
“Imagine bringing up a child in this society, where 80 percent of income goes to rearing kids, and they in turn have to survive in an extremely competitive environment,” Ms. Myung says.
The couple represents a growing segment of society: Millions of young Koreans in their 20s and 30s choosing not to raise families. The effect of the trend is a profound one for the country as a whole.
Korea’s birthrate ― measured as the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime ― has dropped to 1.17 today ― the lowest in the world. According to the Korea National Statistics Office, the country’s population rose by 495,000 last year, the first time it had grown by less than 500,000 since the agency began keeping track.
A recent study of population trends by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs predicts that in 2023, Korea’s population will start to steadily decline, leading to a sharp demographic shift in which Koreans over 60 will outnumber those in their 20s and younger. This trend has alarmed legislators and government officials, some of whom are pushing for measures to encourage population growth, such as tax incentives and subsidizing families with children.
The chief factor behind the falling birthrate, according to the institute, is the cost of raising a child ― particularly the cost of private education, without which students find it hard to survive fierce academic competition.
Per child, the cost of an education consumes upwards of 9 percent of the entire monthly expenditure of Korean familes with children. That number jumps when parents send children to specialized, private high schools, such as foreign language schools or science schools. Access to such schools is thought necessary if a student is to have a chance of entering a top university. Such private schools are expensive, often costing as much as 30 million won ($25,700) per year for tuition alone.
Another factor dissuading Koreans against starting families is the relative lack of daycare. More women are seeking careers, and without adequate child care, becoming a working mother is a dubious proposition. There are only 22,000 registered daycare centers in Korea, offering 150,000 places. The demand is estimated to be for 890,000 children.
Women are also choosing not to have children because their attitudes toward marriage are changing. More and more women see traditional ideas of marriage as unfair and male-centered, demanding too much of them in terms of juggling work and family.
A survey by a feminist journal, IF, found that 67 percent of female university students between 19 and 21 had considered not having children. Male-centered tradition in Korean families was a chief reason, along with laws such as hojuje, the family registry system that defines the status of each family member in relation to the male head of the household.
“Marriage itself is difficult enough in Korea, from attending family obligations with your in-laws to taking full charge of housework,” says Ahn Ju-young, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mother with two young children. “For women, the hardship is often worsened by the fact that everything you are entitled to do at home is not an obligation for men.
“Our mothers must have taken that for granted,” she continues. “But our generation is different. We are taught to be independent. We know the pleasure of spending money for ourselves. We are used to doing things in our own way. I think that is why more and more women who are highly educated choose not to have babies and to remain single.”
Hur La-geum, a professor of women’s studies at Ewha Womans University, shares that view. She says it is contradictory for society to encourage more women to enter the workforce while neglecting the realities of motherhood, such as the need for daycare.
“The fact is that a growing number of Korean women find economic independence an absolute value in their lives,” Ms. Hur says. “In a social atmosphere where an individual’s status is based heavily on his or her economic capability, women fear they would slip in social position by having babies. Many women have learned from their mothers that economic reliance on men has often led to subordinate positions within a family or as a social individual.”
Some believe that, apart from economic and social factors, Korea is simply becoming a more self-serving society.
“I guess more women today find that they just can’t afford to waste their lives on something else other than themselves,” Ms. Ahn says. “I feel that when I see some of my female friends who say they refuse to get married simply because they don’t want to have their body shape ruined. They don’t want to have their pelvis stretched and gain weight due to pregnancy. It’s as simple as that. They just want to pursue their own happiness instead of sacrificing all their lives for children.”
While experts argue that the availability of birth control and abortion is not a direct cause of the low birthrate, one can assume that the issues are not unrelated, since an average of 2 million abortions take place in Korea annually, making the country’s abortion rate one of the highest in the world. One out of four (24.1%) married women in Korea who are fertile have had at least one abortion, according to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Welfare.
Up to 70 percent of women from the IF’s survey said help from their family is the most important requirement for child-rearing today, followed by economic stability, support from the government and daycare service provided by employers.
Lim Sun-young, a 28-year-old editor at a publishing company who has lived with her boyfriend for three years, says she wants to remain childless after marriage unless her husband makes a commitment to split child-rearing responsibilities.
“My partner will not help me out in child-rearing as much as I expect him to, largely because the corporate atmosphere here just won’t allow working fathers to spend time with a child at home,” Ms. Lim says. “And he would use that reality as an excuse.”
The Gender Equality Law says either parent can take an optional, unpaid child-rearing leave for up to nine months after the mother’s usual 60-day post-delivery leave. But according to the Ministry of Labor, of 3,763 parents who took child-care leave last year, only 78 were fathers. This is a slight increase over 15 years ago, but far below the rate of paternal leave-taking in the United States or Europe.
“Both parents are legally protected by law to take child-care leave within the period given,” said a spokesperson for equality policies within the Labor Ministry. “But many employees are uneasy about their position within the company while they are away.
“And if one has to risk a career to take the leave, many times it’s the women, who often has the lower income compared to their male partners, and it’s more socially acceptable to make the sacrifice for the child,” the spokesperson continued. “It hasn’t been long since Korean men began to think that child-rearing is also part of their responsibility.”
Despite all this, the majority of married couples still opt for having at least one child, even if it means a heavy financial and social burden.
Lee Hyung-jin, a 32-year-old engineer who had his first child in March and plans to have two more, acknowledges the high cost of education and the fiercely competitive environment, but he says Korean parents must ease up in their expectations about what they need to do for their children.
“I do feel the pressure to work harder and save money for my kid now,” Mr. Lee says. “But it seems that many parents today hold this idealist view of raising children under the best possible conditions or not at all. You don’t have to teach them to speak English from age five and move to expensive neighborhoods with the best middle schools to raise your child to be a good person.”
Double income, no kids ― and plenty of time for themselves
“Having a child does not necessarily equate to marital bliss,” Lee Il-Seong told his wife, Myung Song-ok, in persuading her they’d be happiest as a DINK couple.
The DINK life ― that stands for “double income, no kids” ― suits the young, professional couple fine. Their families were less pleased when they announced their decision, however. Mr. Lee’s father thought they should have children ― preferably sons. Ms. Myung’s mother still pays homage to a Buddhist temple hoping her daughter will change her mind.
But Mr. Lee’s mother sided with them. Ms. Myung said her mother-in-law told her, “There are two types of women, those who raise children and those who don’t. It’s up to you to live your life as you want.”
“The biggest reason for deciding not to have kids is the economic burden of raising a child in Korean society,” Ms. Myung says. “I have nieces and nephews who are proof that not only parents, but also kids these days have it bad.
“From the moment they enter kindergarten, the fierce competition to get into a decent school, to succeed in society, to support their kids in turn, makes me feel sorry for them. The costs of education, of raising a child, are too high, and we can never make enough money to support our lifestyle and give a decent education to our children.”
Mr. Lee agrees. “In our society, parents’ lives have to be sacrificied to raise and educate our children in the best possible way, and I don’t agree with this notion. Our country’s educational environment is so harsh that it dissuades me from bringing a child into this society.”
Because of their hectic schedules during the week, the couple spends weekends together, shopping, dining, going to movies and traveling. This year they’ve taken up inline skating. They maintain separate incomes, but chip in for mutual expenses such as mortgage payments and household purchases.
“It’s not about living a life of luxury for the two of us,” Ms. Myung says. “I don’t want to come across as being selfish, but is raising a child of our own the only way to give back to society? I think we can do much more in other ways.”
“Many worry that we will be lonely in old age,” she adds. “But we’ll have to see if we are, won’t we? No use worrying before it has happened.”
What government can do ― and what it should be doing
Experts say government officials tiptoe around the issue of Korea’s falling birthrate, because it demands major reforms in education, employment, child care, housing and social welfare.
But in an attempt to spur the birthrate, some legistators recently sponsored a bill that would provide subsidies to families with a third child. Last month, the Ministry of Finance and Economy came up with a tax reduction scheme to families with children. Such measures, however, have been criticized for not confronting the issue head-on.
“Granting a subsidy to families with children under the Childbirth Stability Act is an effective measure that the Western countries have also undertaken to spur their birthrates,” says Kim Seung-kwon, Director of the Social Policy Division at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. “But this policy of giving aid to people with a third child and tax exemption measures are, in the long term, ineffectual.”
Mr. Kim believes that direct aid would be a more effective incentive ― for example, longer maternity leaves. But he warns, “These support programs must not become the burden of corporations. If the corporate sector takes over the cost of daycare centers and maternity aid, then the system won’t work. Support measures must come from the public sector, like employment insurance.”
by Choi Jie-ho, Park Soo-mee