South Korea's Fertility Crisis: A Struggle for Work-Life Balance

South Korea's Fertility Crisis: A Struggle for Work-Life Balance

SEOUL - In 2023, South Korea experienced a further decline in its already record-low fertility rate, with women opting to delay childbirth or forego it altogether due to concerns about career advancement and the financial burden of raising children. Statistics Korea reported that the average number of expected babies per woman dropped to 0.72, a significant decrease from 0.78 in 2022, and well below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed for a stable population. Despite extensive efforts and spending aimed at reversing this trend, South Korea remains the only OECD member with a fertility rate below 1 since 2018, leading to a fourth consecutive year of population decline in 2023.

Factors such as career progression and the high cost of housing and education have contributed to this demographic crisis, with many women like Gwak Tae-hee, a 34-year-old junior manager, prioritizing their professional goals over starting a family. Gwak, who has been married for three years, had considered fertility treatments but opted to focus on her career instead, fearing that taking time off for childcare would hinder her chances of advancement in a competitive work environment where part-time employment offers little opportunity for progress.

The declining fertility rate poses a significant risk to South Korea's economic growth and social welfare system, with projections indicating a further decrease to 0.68 in 2024 and the population potentially halving by the end of the century. Ahead of upcoming elections, political parties have pledged measures such as increased public housing and easier access to loans to encourage childbirth, recognizing the urgency of addressing the issue to prevent a "national extinction" scenario.

Marriage rates are also declining in South Korea, and while the focus of government policies is on boosting childbirth, there is acknowledgment of the need to understand why married couples choose not to have children. Despite substantial investments in areas like childcare subsidies since 2006, the efforts have yet to yield significant results in reversing the fertility decline.

South Korea's situation mirrors that of other countries in the region, such as Japan and China, both struggling with aging populations and record-low fertility rates. In neighboring Japan, the number of births in 2023 reached a new low for the eighth consecutive year, while China recorded its own record low fertility rate of 1.09 in 2022.

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