Birth rate economicsSouth Korea’s total fertility rate — the average number of births a woman is expected to have during her lifetime — fell to a new historic low of 0.88 in the third quarter, down from 0.96 a year ago. The rate was 0.69 in Seoul and 0.78 in Busan. Such a record is hard to find anywhere else. Zero birthrates are found only in city-states like Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. At this rate, the total fertility rate for this year will end up at 0.8. The number is bound to go down in the coming years as the number of marriages keep falling.
At this rate, the country is headed for a demographic cliff. The population is at 51.7 million. It is expected to peak at 51.94 million in 2028 and fall to 39 million by 2067. The working population, those aged 15 to 64, has been thinning. Schools are closing down, and homes are emptying in rural areas. The falling population is as big a threat to South Korean sustainability as North Korean nuclear bombs.
South Korea has been battling with low birthrates since 2006. The government has taken over 100 measures every year, spending as much as 20 trillion won ($17 billion). With no signs of recovery, society has more or less given up. The vice chair seat on the presidential committee on the low birthrate and aging society has been empty for two months. The committee has not held a general conference this year. President Moon Jae-in last met the committee members in late 2017. He is too busy with the current state affairs to mind the future issue.
The government has thrown out measures addressing births devised by the former government. It abolished the 1.5 birthrate goal and instead focused on balancing family and work life to encourage couples to have families. The direction is ideal but not for a country fast losing population. The government’s population task force came up with longer-term measures, but none can produce immediate or lasting effects.
The National Assembly is more relaxed. It is too preoccupied with the upcoming election in April. It set up a special committee on births, though activities were limited to a few meetings. The ruling as well as the opposition camps are uninterested.
The zero birth rate may be inevitable. The young opt to defer graduation as far as possible due to scarcity in the job market. They can hardly dream of starting a family. Child care and education are too burdensome.
The government must try to keep jobs at home. If the economy does well, the young no longer will fear starting a family or having children.