[VIEWPOINT]‘Bringing up baby’ a priorityA friend who has children in elementary school spoke to me a while ago about his visit to his children’s school for parents’ day. He said he was surprised at three things.
First, he was surprised to see that there were so many children wearing glasses. When we were young, children wearing glasses were so scarce that we all called them by the nickname “glasses.”
The second thing that surprised him was that there were a lot of fathers among the parents visiting, although it wasn’t graduation day.
Lastly, he talked about the education facilities that seemed better than university classroom equipment, and that the number of children in a class was just over thirty.
Education conditions are much better now compared to those in our time, when more than seventy students had to study in a classroom around the same size as now, without air-conditioning or television.
Development of our society and an increase in the number of schools might have something to do with it, but a decrease in the number of children is probably a bigger factor.
According to the “2004 birth and death statistics” recently published by the National Statistical Office, the aggregate birthrate for Korea is the lowest in the world at 1.16 per woman. In the case of Japan, where the birthrate is 1.29 per woman, they say if the present birthrate trend continues, their population will by 2100 decrease to 60 million, half the population of today, and in 2500 there will be only 150,000 people living in Japan.
That is the same number as during the Jomon era some 4,000 years ago.
The Japanese government defines this as a “fatal calamity in history” and has passed a “basic law to cope with the social trend of having a smaller number of children.” Despite the possibility of violating basic human rights, Japan has specified in the law that “having the dream of a family and children is the obligation of the people.”
The problem is that the situation and trend in Korea is a lot worse than in Japan. The birthrate of 4.53 in 1970 decreased to 1.67 in 1994 and rapidly fell to 1.16 in 2004.
The government has recently acknowledged the seriousness of the matter and set the goal of a birthrate of 1.6 by 2010, and the State Affairs Coordination Office of the prime minister’s office is preparing a pan-governmental plan to cope with the low birthrate problem.
If the aging of a society progresses along with a natural decrease in population, the burden on the economically active population to support the aged becomes heavier and the growth rate slows down due to the lack of a work force.
Therefore, giving birth and raising children becomes not a microscopic problem of fertile women and families, but a macroeconomic problem that can change the future of a country.
According to a report by the Korea Women’s Development Institute, the root causes of our society’s low birthrate phenomenon can be found in financial reasons such as “unstable employment of married men and women due to economic recession” and the “heavy financial burden of bringing up children,” and in the trend to give “priority to employment and self-development.”
In other words, a change in values that is well represented by the emergence of “Dinks” (Double Income, No Kids), and the reality that the burden of bringing up and educating children mainly falls on women are the major causes of a low birthrate. Therefore the direction of future policies needs to focus on these points also. We must create an environment fit for having children.
Government policies to improve the birthrate have until now been passive and short-sighted, such as financial incentives for giving birth or the partial payment of the expense of raising children. France and Sweden, which already went through low birth rates, did not stop at offering incentives for having children, but are now focusing on expanding the social responsibility for children by putting emphasis on a welfare policy for children.
Korea too needs to see that a country and society raise children together with families. So we not only need to improve incentive programs for having children, tax benefits and social security systems, but also need to come up with diverse inducement policies such as incentives for families with infants or many children.
However, there is a limit to financial inducement policies.
Fundamentally, a working environment in which the stable economic activity of women is guaranteed should be created. The cost of a maternity protection system, including leave from work to raise infants, needs to be insured by society so that the responsibility of bringing up children can be socialized.
Right now, companies shoulder two-thirds of the cost for maternity protection, which is the reason companies avoid employing women.
A change in thinking and the improvement of our systems is urgently needed.
* The writer is a professor of psychology at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Bae Young