[OUTLOOK]Time to reassess assumptionsLast year, Korea recorded the lowest birth rate in the world of 1.08 percent. The low birth rate has amplified worries that Korean society will become stagnant and decline as the aging of the population is accelerating.
On Thursday, the government announced a plan to cope with the low birth rate and our aging society and set a target birth rate at 1.6 percent, the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries, to be attained by 2020.
Included in the government plan for stabilizing the declining birth rate are various social and economic factors that can encourage the decision to have children.
The government effort to pursue such comprehensive measures deserves to be evaluated positively. But the measures in the plan are only short-term ones that give symptomatic treatment to existing conditions.
They lack fundamental studies or long-term direction on why such changes take place.
If we see the decline of the birth rate in the bigger frame of social change, we have to acknowledge it as a change in the paradigm of lifestyles in the 21st century. As the pattern of people’s lives underwent drastic changes when our agricultural society converted to an industrial society, there was also a change of paradigm in modern society.
In this sense, it is necessary to change our perception on childbirth and have an “open way of thinking” when we set up a social plan to cope with the low birth rate.
First, it is necessary to change various social systems and cultures that support the division of labor between the sexes and sexual discrimination by defining men as being responsible for earning a living and women for child rearing and managing household affairs.
The decline in the birth rate was anticipated as early as 20 years ago. This is an unintended result of a patriarchal social order that has lasted a long time in our society.
Although working couples make up more than half of all Korean households, we place the responsibility for housekeeping and child rearing on women and only consider them an auxiliary workforce in the labor market.
Such a sexually discriminative system and culture has led women to stage a “strike against childbirth.”
What is interesting is that the unequal role sharing between the sexes also affect men’s views on marriage and children. Nowadays, unlike their fathers’ generation, young men dislike the idea of getting married early and taking on the burden of supporting their family for a lifetime.
At times, today’s young men evade or delay the onset of marriage and child birth. Although the government plan emphasizes gender equality, it still shows a rigid way of thinking by describing women’s employment as “self-realization” and giving men only three days of holidays when their spouses give birth to children.
In addition, businesses are against the introduction of a system that allows the coexistence of work and family for the reason that such a system would place additional burdens on them and discourage employment.
Secondly, it is time for us to challenge the marriage-centered way of thinking that assigns childbirth and fostering only to married couples. In the case of France, which is considered to have been successful in stabilizing its birth rate, half of newly born babies are born to single mothers or couples living together outside of marriage.
The plan the Korean government announced this time is limited to married couples.
Though it is often criticized as being too radical or fanning social disorder to criticize government policy in this way, some scholars insist that the desire for familiarity that used to be satisfied through marriage is undergoing a structural change in modern society.
I think it is necessary for us to reflect on our way of living.
Western countries that experienced low birth rates could not have stabilized the birth rate without easing the division of labor between the sexes or dismantling marriage-centered attitudes of recognizing child birth and fostering as the right of married couples only.
That is, if the division of labor between the sexes is eased, the status of women is improved and child birth outside of marriage is recognized culturally and systematically, we will see the birth rate increase.
France and Sweden are successful examples, while Japan and Italy are cited as countries that failed. Their differences lie in the intensity of the traits of patriarchal culture.
It is difficult to achieve birth rate stabilization without the will to challenge the social and cultural conditions that surround us.
Grown-up men and women who want to have children or adopt them, businesses that need high quality labor and a government that promotes national prosperity should all get rid of the narrow-minded conservative way of thinking.
* The writer is a professor of women’s studies at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Jae-gyeong