Encouraging paternity leaveIn Sweden, more than 80 percent of fathers enjoy two months of paternity leave. Ten percent of fathers go beyond that and spend more than six months taking care of their newborn children.
Swedish fathers were not always this involved in their children’s care. Very few fathers applied for leave when the law was passed in 1974. However, things changed after the government added a provision in 1995 stipulating that parents can receive a child care allowance only if fathers take at least one month off out of the 13 months allowed for parental leave. The new policy was well received and paternal leave was extended to two months.
This groundbreaking experiment was initiated to resolve a severe labor shortage resulting from low birthrates and a rapidly-aging population. The Swedish government devised policies to make full use of the female workforce, but child rearing was the biggest obstacle. Despite fierce opposition from various sectors of society, the Swedish government pushed ahead with the plan, convinced that the labor shortage problem could only be solved when husband and wife took equal responsibility for child care. As a result, Sweden’s birthrates and women’s economic activity rates are much higher than those of other developed countries.
After the Swedish model proved successful, European countries suffering from similar labor shortages adopted the Swedish system. Germany mandated in 2007 that fathers take two months of paternity leave, out of the 14 months of parental leave granted. Since then, the percentage of men taking paternity leave has soared from 3 to 20 percent.
We must consider adopting the Swedish model because our birthrate - 1.15 last year - is one of the world’s lowest. A main reason for the low birthrate is that our society lays the burden of child rearing on women. Although the government has spent over 20 trillion won ($16.3 billion) to encourage childbirth since 2006, the birthrate has continued to drop because of society’s unwillingness to shift the burden off of women. Fortunately, the number of men taking paternity leave is increasing in Korea. The figure rose to 502 last year, an increase of 25 percent from the previous year. But the number is still small. If more Korean fathers share the child care burden with their wives, women’s participation in economic activity, currently the lowest among OECD member nations, will also increase. The OECD recently warned that South Korea’s potential growth rate will plunge in two years due to the low birthrate and aging population. We should model ourselves after Sweden, where the government succeeded in both raising the birthrate and increasing the size of the female workforce.