Young Koreans call for increased support for unmarried, single parents in light of low birth rates

Posted on : 2023-03-06 17:37 KST Modified on : 2023-03-06 18:48 KST
Some young Koreans attribute the low birth rate in the country to the pressures of marriage and an absence of support for unmarried and single parents
Carts in the newborn center in a Seoul hospital sit empty on Sept. 27, 2018. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)
Carts in the newborn center in a Seoul hospital sit empty on Sept. 27, 2018. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)

With South Korea’s total fertility rate reaching 0.78 last year, concerns about the historically low birth rate have been intensifying. In a roundtable organized by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW), young South Koreans shared their practical reasons for being unwilling to have children in the current societal climate.

Among the messages they shared were calls for changing the perceptions and culture surrounding marriage and expanding support for unmarried or single parents.

At a young people’s roundtable for discussing a response to the low birthrate held Saturday by the MOHW, 15 young South Koreans were asked for their ideas on policy approaches to resolve the low birth rate issue.

The ministry has been holding successive roundtables with experts and young people on an emergency response to the birth rate after the total fertility rate reached 0.78 last year, with only 240,000 new births.

The young participants in the roundtable Saturday explained that current support for childbirth is “focused on women who are in a marital relationship.”

“Marriage comes with all sorts of burdens, and there isn’t any support out there for unmarried parents,” one participant said.

In addition to improved perceptions of unmarried cohabitation and childbirth outside of marriage, they also stressed the need for increased support to unmarried women and men, citing the various situations and factors at play in the subfertility phenomenon.

As of 2021, the proportion of children born outside of marriage in South Korea stood at 2.9%. The rate was far below the roughly 40% average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  as a whole.

This was one of the reasons the young participants stressed the importance of changing cultural attitudes — especially those treating marriage as a prerequisite for having children — as a way of overcoming the low birth rate issue.

South Korean society has been rapidly shifting in its perceptions of childbirth outside of marriage. A Statistics Korea survey last year showed 34.7% of respondents agreeing that people “can have children without being married” — up from 22.4% in 2012.

Younger people in particular indicated that they approved of childbirth outside of marriage, including 39% of respondents in their 20s and 39.9% of those in their 30s.

But existing institutions are far out of line with these perceptions.

Currently, the Mother and Child Health Act defines “subfertility” as a “state in which a woman is unable to conceive despite regular unprotected sexual intercourse between a married couple (including de facto marital relationship [. . .]) for not less than one year.” Based on this definition, the current support for subfertility assumes a marital relationship.

Significantly, young people planning for their own future families called for subfertility support to be provided to men too.

While treatments for subfertility in men have been covered by health insurance since 2017, they are only recognized as eligible for benefits after the woman has begun in vitro fertilization procedures. Critics have described this as an irrational system that requires women to undergo unnecessary procedures when it is the man who requires subfertility treatment.

The young participants at the roundtable also said many are avoiding marriage because of the large burdens associated with the current wedding system and frustrations with life after marriage.

Young people decried a “burdensome wedding culture” where couples have to pay steep costs for studio photography, dresses, and makeup and collect “congratulation payments” from parents.

As other reasons for avoiding marriage, they cited the traditional hassles experienced by daughters- and sons-in-law, including forced visits on holidays and telephone calls, ritual obligations, and relatives visiting and opening up their refrigerator to check inside.

The biggest burden experienced by young people was unquestionably financial, with participants citing “difficulties establishing a stable residence and hassles with acquiring the necessary assets and taking out loans amid a climate of excessive competition and comparison with others.”

First Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Lee Ki-il, who also attended the roundtable, stated plans to “make preparations with a serious sense of alarm about the current situation, where the total fertility rate remains below one and we start truly entering a period of hyper-aging and population decline.”

He added that he intended to “carefully consider what these young people suggested.”

By Bang Jun-ho, staff reporter

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