A futurist’s 4 prescriptions to remedy Korea’s dismally low birth rate

Posted on : 2024-05-29 17:06 KST Modified on : 2024-05-29 17:06 KST
Futurist Thomas Frey underscores work-life balance, financial support, gender equality measures, and child care infrastructure to tackle the country’s falling birth rate

South Korea’s total fertility rate, the number of children that an average woman is expected to have over her lifetime, was 0.72 in 2023. This was a mere third of the 2.1 minimum for population maintenance, and is an indication of a demographic crisis. This figure further sunk to 0.65 for the final three months of 2023. It’s likely that the figure will come to around 0.6 for the year 2024.  

At this rate, Statistics Korea forecasts that South Korea’s population will fall to around 36 million in 50 years. The country’s population rose from 32 million in 1970 to 50 million in 2012, but now it’s plummeting back toward the 1970s, as if the boom were just a midsummer night’s dream. 

It’s difficult to find such a sharp drop in the population anywhere else in the world. 

A drastic drop-off in a country’s population results in a sharply shrinking workforce, which shrinks the economy while placing greater demands on the state social safety net. Moreover, societal aging exacerbates the problem of diminishing innovation. 

The South Korean government has announced plans to create the “Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter-Planning” to respond to this demographic crisis. Yet the state has already thrown astronomical levels of public funding at a problem that only keeps getting bigger. 

3 major factors behind low birth rates

Addressing South Korea’s plummeting birth rates, Thomas Frey, a futurist and founder of the DaVinci Institute, proposed his four “strategies for reversal” on his blog. As a former IBM engineer and prominent futurist, Frey has given lectures in South Korea and around the world since 2010. 

“South Korea stands at a crossroads that calls for decisive action,” Frey writes on his blog. 

“To reverse this trend and reinvigorate the nation's demographic vitality, a multifaceted strategy is essential — one that rethinks existing social structures and addresses the complex web of factors that contribute to the decision to start a family,” he writes. 

Frey points to three major factors that contribute to low fertility rates: economic constraints, cultural and social pressures, and educational burdens. Specifically, he refers to high unemployment coupled with intense competition for jobs; the high cost of housing; the burden of societal expectations placed on women in raising children; and the fierce competition among young students that necessitates private education costs.

Lowering the barriers to starting a family

The first of Frey’s strategies is “enhancing family-friendly policies” such as extended parental leave, greater paternity leave, and flexible work arrangements. 

By providing longer periods of leave for both mothers and fathers, Frey argues that “parents are given valuable time to bond with their newborns without the stress of a rapid return to work.” Additionally, Frey claims that greater paternity leave “encourages fathers to take an active role early in their children's lives,” which promotes “shared parenting responsibilities” and “more gender equality in childrearing.” 

Regarding work arrangements, Frey argues that companies need to offer telecommuting options, flexible work hours, and part-time work to “help parents balance their professional and personal lives,” which would “reduce the perceived incompatibility between career ambitions and starting a family.”

Frey’s second strategy involves financial incentives, which he argues “can significantly lower the barriers to starting a family.”

Specifically, Frey advocates housing subsidies to reduce the cost of living, child allowances in the form of “regular stipends to families with children,” and “education cost reduction.” 

Change is not optional, but vital for survival

The third strategy involves changing the country's work culture and gender norms. Specifically, this involves reducing work hours, destigmatizing parental leave, and promoting the “equitable sharing of domestic tasks.” 

The fourth strategy is supportive child care systems. Specifically, Frey calls for accessible child care to alleviate the “primary logistical hurdles faced by working parents”; state investment in “the training and compensation of child care providers to “raise the quality and appeal of child care as a profession”; and incentives for employers that “encourage  businesses to provide onsite child care or child care assistance.”

“As we stand at the threshold of significant demographic shifts,” Frey writes, “the strategies for reversal are not merely optional — they are imperative.” 

Frey argues that through his strategies, South Korea “could foster an environment that not only stabilizes the birth rate but also promotes a healthier work-life balance, creating a resilient and thriving society for future generations.”

By Kwak No-pil, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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