Reversing a vicious cycleI immersed myself in the riches of nature’s healing power as I meandered along a sea of lotus blossoms over the weekend. The blooms reach their peak around this time of the year at the famous Semiwon lotus garden in Yangpyeong, east of Seoul. The path led to the Sehanjeong Pavilion at the end of the garden, which devoted a wall to Chusa, the pen name of the famous calligrapher and scholar Kim Jeoung-hui (1786~1856) of the late Joseon Dynasty, known for his masterpiece painting about the absolute loneliness of life in exile on Jeju Island.
A pine tree stood nearby inviting visitors to hang their votive cards. The cards bore wishes for acceptances to good universities and jobs at good companies. The most common ones were prayers that daughters would find nice men to marry. The idea that prayers for daughters are getting more desperate is no exaggeration, and statistics bear it out. The average age of a first marriage for Korean women was 29.81 last year, compared with 24.78 in 1990. The age of getting married and having kids has been gradually pushed up.
What happened over the years to contribute to such a delay in marriages and giving birth for Korean women? The biggest factor is a scarcity of jobs. During the period of Korea’s rapid industrialization, men were the primary breadwinners. By and large, Korean women believed their role was to be a housewife. By the time the economy lost some of its steam, women had become highly educated, and that motivated many to pursue careers.
The phenomenon will almost certainly accelerate. As annual economic growth slows to 2 to 3 percent, highly-educated women will choose careers over marriage and kids. Women exceed men in acceptances to universities. Women have long outperformed men in entrance exams for civil service positions and in private companies. At the same time, the job market is getting thinner. Jobs are scarcer in a slow-growing economy while more and more women are looking for jobs, making demand far exceed supply in the job market. The unemployment rate among young people hit a 16-year high of 10.2 percent last month. It’s no wonder the young are delaying marriage. They cannot afford the time and money to start a family as they are entirely engrossed with finding decent jobs.
The lucky ones who find jobs and get married are faced with another hurdle - caring for their children while both parents work. The number of day care centers has increased substantially, but reliable ones that a mother can be confident in are still rare. There is little left in the household purse for saving after paying for a babysitter and pre-school fees. Korea’s legacy of a brutal work culture remains intact, forcing women to choose between a family and a career. Work-life balance isn’t easy in Korea.
The ordeal doesn’t end after kids enter elementary schools. Working couples can hardly make ends meet after paying cram school and tutoring bills for their kids. They dare not dream of owning a house. Paying rent seems to be their fate for life. They give up on the idea of having a second child or the mother ends up quitting her job. The more children, the harder it is for Korean parents. That’s why one-child households have become prevalent in Korean families.
The vicious cycle of a low birth rate, aging population and slow economic growth will only deepen the country’s weakness. Demographic growth helped drive Korea’s economic expansion during the industrialization period. During the baby-boom between 1955 and 1963, 800,000 babies were born a year. The economy blossomed as they joined the work force. Demand has shriveled now that annual births have been halved to 400,000. Deflationary signs are everywhere.
To reverse the vicious cycle, more young people must be encouraged to get married and have more than two kids. That is only possible when the economy provides long-term hope. The economy must become vibrant again. The way has been prescribed. Red tape should be lifted so services like medicine, tourism, leisure, fashion and entertainment are liberalized to pave the way for new jobs. It should become easier to buy homes. Education needs to be revamped so that the cost of private education becomes less burdensome. Workers of childbearing age should be supported. When jobs are more accessible, younger people will be more encouraged to start families at an earlier age.
Korea’s low birth rate won’t be solved through temporary measures. It must be a long-term priority. Instead of leaving the low birth rate and aging population problems in the hands of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance should spearhead the campaign.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 17, Page B8
*The author is a senior reporter on economic affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Dong-ho