[VIEW 2035] Realizing the Nordic fantasy in the Korean fertility rate

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[VIEW 2035] Realizing the Nordic fantasy in the Korean fertility rate

Yu Sung-kuk

The author is a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Two months ago, I visited Finland to gather some materials to cover the alternative military service system. I went to Helsinki City Hall at 1 p.m. to have an interview with the deputy mayor. He was wearing shorts and sneakers. Just as the interview started, I heard someone stomping from under his desk. I wondered if someone was hiding there, but just before some Hollywood movie or daytime soap opera could cross my mind, a kid's hand stuck out. Then the deputy mayor's 8-year-old girl crawled out. Asked whether he often brought his daughter to his office, he answered, “I sometimes do, when I can’t drop her off at daycare during vacations or the holiday season.”
The day before, I met an officer who was in charge of national defense policy at 4 p.m. “I’m working overtime to give this interview. I was planning to spend time with my family. So please write some good stories,” he said, smiling. I couldn’t even find any security staff members after we were done with the interview. Here in Korea, we can’t even imagine that.

The local resident who did the interpreting told me that her husband, who works as a researcher at a governmental institution, normally goes to work at 8 a.m. and leaves the office before 4 p.m. Many parents leave their work even earlier to pick up their children. As of 2020, the annual average working hours amounted to 1,908 in Korea, while the number for Finland was 1,531. Koreans work more than seven hours longer than Finns every week. For sure, we need to be aware of the difference in the size of the part-time job market; but I could sense more than just the stats there. Males and females equally share the burden of housework in Finland.

However, Finland has also gone through economic difficulties, and its fertility rate dropped below 1.4, down from 1.7 over the past 10 years. Then the number has grown to 1.46 for the second consecutive year. Experts say that government policies and the narrowed gap between men and women made it possible. Finland ranks second in the Gender Equality Index globally — the difference between the female employment rate (71.8 percent) and that of males (72.8 percent) is nearly non-existent.

Korea's total fertility rate stood at 0.81, the lowest among OCED member countries. It placed 99th in the Gender Equality Index; and housework hours of females (187 minutes) were more than three times longer than that of males (54 minutes) for double income households as of 2019. Females who are not working as a civil servant are always concerned about career discontinuity and the childcare burden. Support from both sides of parents of the couple are essential to make their ends meet, and paying for childcare expenses add to their concerns. They can hardly dream about purchasing their own house. Many places hang signs that say “No Kids Allowed Here” on their doors and mothers easily become a target. Korea already ranks within the top for the average working hours, but the government is considering a plan to extend it rather than shorten it. Is it possible to foster male participation in housework? There are so many obstacles to overcome when a couple makes a decision to get married and start a family. The number 0.81 did not come out of nowhere.

Can you imagine a world where a woman's husband leaves the office before 5 p.m. to pick up their kids, prepare for dinner, and wait for the wife at home? Consider this as an imaginary Nordic story. Then you’ll never see the figure for the fertility rate rebound above 1.0.

BY YU SUNG-KUK [yu.sungkuk@joongang.co.kr]
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