[VIEWPOINT]How to raise the birth rateIn its recent report, the Samsung Economic Research Institute did not hesitate to name the low birth rate as one of the threats to the Korean economy. The United Nations said South Korea will have a larger proportion of elderly among its total population than Japan by 2050. We feel the gloomy outlook triggered by Korean women’s “birth strike.”
For a long time, South Koreans have been accustomed to worrying about overpopulation. The slogans from the state-driven population control policy declared that the nation is already overpopulated when a household has two children, regardless of their gender.
These days, the younger generation jokes that they consult with their neighbors when planning a baby ― resulting in only every third household having children in the end.
Because Koreans have gotten so used to the government-driven population control programs for a long time, the older generation regarded these talks as a joke. In today’s Korea, however, “Should we provide you a grandchild?” has become a bargaining tactic used by younger generation couples in dealing with their parents.
The government, surprised that the birth rate continues plunging, has come up with various measures to encourage women to have more children. But fertile women in Korea shake their heads when they offered 3 million won in return for having a third child. That is the reality, and it has become clear that encouragement measures are not enough to pull up the falling birth rate.
We all know why Korean women have been avoiding having more children. The most important reason is that children’s utilitarian value is much less now than in the past. Children were once the sources of manpower, guarantees for the parents’ livelihoods in the future and the symbol of family happiness. Today, children are seen as an expensive investment.
Many parents have devoted their lives to educate their children, sometimes living separate lives for the sake of an overseas education. But in today’s Korea, parents who anticipate their children’s support after their retirement could be in for an unfortunate disappointment.
In Korea, after a child is born, a series of expenses follow, as well as fierce competition for college admission and jobs, which will continue until the child leaves home. Under these circumstances, many married couples don’t want to have a child.
In order to slow down the speed of the falling birth rate, while maintaining the minimum population for sustainable growth, a radical paradigm shift is necessary to change the environment surrounding the birth, upbringing and education of children so that it will be more supportive of women of childbearing age.
Childbirth and upbringing have been regarded as the primary responsibility of women, automatically connected to their low productivity in our society. Unless this perception changes, women who don’t want to sacrifice their career will have no other choice but to choose not to have children. Unless we see changes in Korea’s education, where expensive private tutoring must supplement poor public education, the government incentives to increase the birth rate will see only limited returns.
It is time to form an organic cooperative system among families, companies and the state to find a solution to the low birth rate by recognizing each party’s own responsibilities and duties and finding specific roles to implement.
Learning from the cases of Western nations, which have tried to solve the problem of low birth rates in the past, companies should consider having child care programs so that female workers can keep up their productivity.
To prevent female employees’ child-rearing responsibilities from becoming an obstacle in their careers, companies should also guarantee jobs after maternity leaves and allow the mothers to work part time for a certain period after giving birth, while recognizing their professional expertise. Companies should also make sure to keep a pool of alternative workers to fill the temporary gaps created by women who are on maternity leave.
In addition to such women-friendly programs, companies can also consider extending parental leaves for husbands and introducing incentives for workers who have babies.
It is, however, unfair to solely put all the social costs of birth on companies. The state should consider leading a plan to create social insurance to share the expenses.
In addition, the government should come up with measures that can remove the need to spend money on private tutoring and provide a realistic plan to end the wasteful competition for college admission.
When all of these plans are realized, more of our younger generation will gladly become mothers and fathers in the future.
* The writer is a professor of sociology at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Hahm In-hee