[SERI]Korea’s low birthrate is nothing to fear

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[SERI]Korea’s low birthrate is nothing to fear

Last month, the U.S. population hit 300 million, setting off a flurry of talk in the American media on whether more population is a bad or good thing for the world’s third most populous nation. In Korea, the same kind of discussion about demographic issues has raged for years, but the focus is almost without exception on the declining fertility rate of Korean women and what to do about it.
Korean women in their reproductive years between the ages of 15 and 49 give birth to 1.08 children on average, already one of the lowest in the world. The comparable figures for some industrialized countries are as follows: Hong Kong, 0.95; Japan and Italy, 1.3; Germany, 1.4; the United States, 2.1. Is this really something to fret about? And would fewer people in a small country like ours hurt us in the long run?
True, low birthrates mean an aging population, a shrinking customer base for businesses, labor shortages, a declining tax base and a rising pension burden on the young generations. Considering that 48 million people are crammed into land equivalent in size to the U.S. state of Indiana, however, a declining population may not be as bad as it sounds.
In addition, we don’t have to confine ourselves to the narrow bounds of an isolated Korea when thinking about a global question such as population. Although there are more than 20 industrial economies reaching the “dangerously low” fertility rate threshold of 1.50, these are limited to relatively affluent areas of the world.
According to one projection, the world’s population will increase to 9.1 billion in 2050 from 6.5 billion today, the bulk of the increase coming from the developing world. In some parts of Asia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, the fertility rate still hovers around 5.0, which means that a woman gives birth to five children on average in her lifetime. The numbers aren’t expected to go down anytime soon.
The typical scene in urban slums and rural villages in these nations is a roadside teeming with many males in their teens and 20s dawdling with nothing to do. As a Western travel reporter put it, a country’s political stability ― or lack thereof ― can be gauged by the frequency with which youngsters like these can be observed from a passing car.
That’s because these countries are invariably male-dominated societies in which girls are obliged to do house chores early on in their lives. Meanwhile, boys have no such obligations. But at the same time, there are few job opportunities for them in the workplace. All they find are odd jobs in the informal sector paying minimal wages, if they are lucky.
In many cases, their testosterone-abetted grievances toward society are resolved in violent manner. In times of turmoil, such as civil war or political unrest, they are easy targets of recruiters looking for hatchet-wielding foot soldiers or suicide bombers. Even in peaceful times, they would remain as neighborhood hoodlums.
What relationship then do these potentially dangerous youngsters in remote lands have with Korea’s problem of a low childbirth rate? As David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace visiting fellow, argued in “The Coming Battle of the Ages,” Washington Post, Feb. 1, 2004, the most serious global problems in the future would not come from Huntingtonesque “clash of civilizations” but from the “clash of generations.”
While those living in the developed world will be threatened by population aging and resulting maladies, he contended, much larger numbers of people in less developed countries will still suffer from the problems of the youth bulge well into the mid-21st century. The only solution to these twin dilemmas would be, he suggested, combining the Global North’s capital and technology with the South’s massive human and natural resources.
If the South’s population problem is not embraced by policy makers and concerned citizens in the North as their own, it will come back and haunt them.
Already, they were treated with a preview of what’s to come in September 2001 when the disgruntled young men from a foreign land showed amply “my problem is also yours.”
It’s not the time for us Koreans to worry about the slowing growth of the domestic population, but to think about ways to solve the population woes in the global dimension. For example, inviting more foreign immigrants into the country would be a good start. People coming from Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa for work are not just here to take jobs away from us.
As already practiced in many immigration-friendly countries, the simple trick for policy makers would be to devise systems and incentive schemes to allow more educated and thus more productive workers to land on our soil.
That will be a better way to prepare for an upcoming slowdown in economic growth while making it easier to support an increasingly aging population.
Korea’s fertility rate can surge instantly without the government doing anything. After unification, for instance, people in North Korea may feel that their future will be brighter than ever and desire to have more babies. It will be just like the situation immediately after the Korean War in the early 1950s when people exhibited a sudden urge to bear more children.
There is no reason to be troubled about Korea’s low fertility rate. The sky is not falling just because population numbers are shaved off by a few million in 50 years’ time. It wouldn’t stop economic growth or bankrupt the national pension fund overnight. Instead, what’s really necessary at this moment is having a global perspective on the demography question.

*The writer is managing editor of SERIWorld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English-language Web site. The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not represent those of the publication that carries it.

by Chung Sang-ho
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