[Viewpoint] Low fertility is now a national crisis

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[Viewpoint] Low fertility is now a national crisis

The fertility rate began to fall again last year. In 2008, the average number of children a Korean woman would bear in her lifetime was estimated at 1.19, the second-lowest rate in the world after Hong Kong. That’s nothing new. The fertility rate in Korea has been one of the lowest in the world during the 2000s, and as the country goes through an economic crisis, the rate is expected to get even lower.

Dr. Paul Hewitt, who had served as the director of the Global Aging Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned early this year that Korea was faced with a serious decline in population that is hard to recover.

If the trend continues, the population will plunge to one-third by 2100, and the Korean children who are born today will be the first generation to witness the population cut in half.

The low fertility rate is not because women are simply unwilling to have children.

We are now living in an environment where people cannot afford to have more children even if they want to. Our private education expenses are some of the highest in the world, and the cost of education has made having two or more children a luxury.

Working mothers have to be prepared to lose their jobs unless they return to work shortly after giving birth, usually within three months.

The law guarantees child care leave of up to one year, but that’s just pie in the sky. Many parents have difficulty finding a proper child care facility and help from grandmother. Nor will getting help from a family member be free, either.

It’s also not easy at the workplace. Whether you are pregnant or have a young child, you should be ready to work overtime and are expected to attend all after-hours gatherings. Once you return home, household chores and child care duties await you.

In this atmosphere where household chores, child care and family affairs are a woman’s lot, many women cannot think of getting married or having children unless they are some kind of superwomen.

The result: Low fertility rates.

Since the problem is multifaceted, it is not easily surmounted by one or two simple solutions. Nor will the situation improve simply by urging women to have more children.

We are all responsible in one way or another. What we need now is to do our best in our own fields of expertise to find ways to change the grim future predicted by various population statistics.

First of all, companies need to make efforts to create family-friendly working environments with good work-family balance so that working women can feel secure enough to get pregnant, have children and raise them. The culture of long working hours should be changed. Korea boasts the longest annual labor hours among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but does not have high productivity numbers to show that all those hours are well spent.

The corporate culture of habitually working late hours with little to show for it not only undermines the competitiveness of the country but also hinders childbearing and parenting. By itself, it could be a nation killer.

But it’s not alone. Education authorities need to work harder to resolve the private education issue. Private educational spending is 2.9 percent of the gross domestic product as of 2007, about 3.6 times the OECD average of 0.8 percent. It is not an exaggeration to say you can not afford to raise children; the financial factor is the biggest cause of Korea’s low fertility rate.

Social and civic organizations have a significant role as well. Family values should be brought back, and we need to have realistic gender equality so that men and women are partners in every way both at home and at work. Religious groups need to advocate respect for life, abortion prevention and positive values on marriage and parenthood, encouraging the younger generation to form families and have children.

Ultimately, the government has the biggest responsibility. It should advocate that Korea has a future when every family has at least two children and should make significant assistance available to all second children for child care and education.

Financial resources should be concentrated on realistic assistance so that most citizens, including those in the middle class, realize the urgency of the situation. The government has to act swiftly to respond to the approaching problems.

In conclusion, a mechanism that encompasses the government and various sectors has to be created to lead a national movement.

The rise and fall of a country is not determined overnight. However, if we do not prepare while knowing of the impending crisis, what is a concern today will soon become a reality. Before it’s too late, all members of Korean society need to attack the national crisis of super-low fertility.

The future of Korea depends on our efforts.

*The writer, a former minister of health and welfare, is the president of the Planned Population Federation of Korea. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Seon-jeong
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