[Column] Maybe Korea would be better off without all the childbirth incentives

Posted on : 2024-01-31 17:19 KST Modified on : 2024-01-31 17:19 KST
Just as your own parents didn’t have you so you could be sold on the labor market, young people don’t fall in love to provide the labor needed for the nation’s economic growth


Illustration No Byeong-wook.
Illustration No Byeong-wook.

By Cho Hyung-keun, sociologist

I enjoy reading popular science books. An area I find especially interesting and insightful is evolutionary biology. But sometimes those books bring moments of stark clarity.

The basic assumption of evolutionary biology is that all life has an instinctive drive to survive and reproduce. It’s amazing to contemplate that I’m the evolutionary product of billions of years of genetic replication of an instinct that originated in primordial single-celled organisms.

And by not having children, I have severed that long chain of evolution. I feel some fleeting guilt about how hard my genetic ancestors must have worked over the eons in their drive to reproduce. Perhaps I should take a moment to honor them.

Korea is in an uproar over its catastrophically low birth rate. People are afraid the country is about to be wiped off the map.

Not long ago, the New York Times published a column in which the author warned that Korea’s population will shrink faster than Medieval Europe during the Black Death. The fertility rate is near 0.7 — a figure with little historical precedent.

I suppose my decision not to have children in the late 20th century makes me one of the unintended culprits behind this catastrophe. Rather than offering a grave warning or some high-minded homily, I’d like to confess the motive for my “crime.”

My wife and I were university students when we got married. We were supporting ourselves on part-time jobs, but somehow managed to tie the knot.

With help from both families, and my wife’s savings, we managed to buy a house on a hill, in a poorer part of town. We combined our separate possessions and furnished the house for a total of 400,000 won.

We got by, with the usual marital nagging, in a new house that looked more like a college dorm room than a honeymoon suite.

Children were a different matter altogether. Since the family is wholly responsible for childcare, raising a child would have meant one of us giving up our work and studies.

It was common for the mother’s parents to raise the kids so the mother didn’t have to give up her career. Sometimes the father’s parents would step in and do the same.

That’s physically challenging for aging grandparents. And for us, it wasn’t an option anyway, since both sets of parents were already small business owners who were basically working themselves to death.

Our parents never blamed us for not wanting to have children, as bad as they felt about it.

But the biggest reason was the lack of clarity about our future. When I decided to go to graduate school, my older friends advised me against it. “Does your family have a lot of money or something?” one of them queried in all seriousness.

Many people urged me to study overseas and not concern myself with idle dreams about tearing down the colonial mindset of the Korean academic community. I was told I wouldn’t be able to find a permanent position without a doctorate from the US.

I wasn’t opposed to the idea of studying abroad per se, but I did believe that someone needed to stay behind to cultivate this barren land.

The path in front of me was stark. Women made up more than half of graduate students, but it was rare indeed for a woman to become a full-time professor. All we could look forward to was an unending string of unstable positions. It was the life we’d chosen, but we couldn’t become parents as long as all we had were part-time jobs.

Were we exceptions? Hardly.

I went to a funeral in the early or mid-2000s and sat down with some older graduate school friends ranging from their mid-30s to mid-40s in age. Somebody said with surprise, “There are 16 people here, and we’ve only had four children among us!”

Many of us had never gotten married, and a lot of the couples were both working to support their studies. The majority of us lacked employment security.

Somebody joked that it wouldn’t be so bad for us to just disappear. The thought that we would all vanish together brought a peculiar sense of melancholy.

Whatever the reasons, giving up marriage or children was our choice. But when today’s young people don’t get married or have children, that’s not a choice, but a fate forced upon them.

I’m told our government spends tens of trillions of won each year on measures to combat the low birth rate. It has even come up with a lot of smart ideas.

But young people — women in particular — aren’t baby-making machines. Just as your own parents didn’t have you so you could be sold on the labor market, young people don’t fall in love to provide the labor needed for the nation’s economic growth or to pay for welfare programs.

There’s something inherently creepy about the mindset that if people are given the appropriate incentives and stimuli, they will respond by having children.

So why aren’t people having kids? Maybe it’s because we live in a dystopia that forces governments to come up with childbirth incentive programs.

Instead of demanding that people have children, we need to ask whether our world is fit for having children in.

According to the World Happiness Report 2023, which is published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a nonprofit affiliated with the UN, Korea ranked 57th for happiness among the 137 countries surveyed, and 35th among the 38 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The happiest countries in the survey were the welfare states of Northern Europe: Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway.

A 2021 report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs called “A Comprehensive Study of Happiness and Quality of Life in Korea” drew upon surveys carried out between 2017 and 2019 to provide a detailed international comparison. The report ranked Korea 61st among 153 countries, and 35th among the OECD member states.

This latter report analyzed the differences between Korea and the countries with the highest levels of happiness. Only minor differences were found in the areas of per-capita income, healthy life expectancy or generosity.

Major differences cropped up in social support, freedom to make life choices, and attitudes toward corruption. Koreans endure an every-individual-for-themselves style of unending competition with few friends or relatives to count on when times are tough.

In the world’s happiest countries, people get to choose between job stability and high wages. But in Korea, the “winners” in “regular jobs” hog all the privileges, while the “losers” in precarious “irregular jobs” are fated to suffer permanent discrimination.

According to the report, countries in which happiness is unequally divided are unhappier overall. The report suggested that in countries like Korea where happiness is very unequal, the best way to raise overall happiness is to make the unhappy happier.

The current administration and conservatives apparently see things very differently.

They say Koreans are unhappy because they have it easy. They say Koreans don’t deserve a break, even though their working hours remain the longest in the OECD. They push for “labor reform,” which amounts to even more work. They’re set on cutting assistance, even though Korea’s welfare budget is just one-third of the OECD average. They say we need to tighten our belts and compete even harder.

But conservatives aren’t the only ones to hold such attitudes. There are plenty of “progressives” in Korea who can’t stand the idea of “irregular workers” getting the same treatment as “regular workers” like them who have worked hard to pass the right tests. The same people who once chanted slogans about solidarity are now defending discrimination. That’s how you make a hell big enough for everybody.

I think we ought to stop talking about childbirth incentive programs. The moment we adopt that narrative, even worthy policies become mere measures to prop up the economic growth rate, just another attempt to stoke humans’ desire to accumulate.

When human beings are treated with such disrespect, they’re apt to devise “measures” of their own — namely, deciding to reject the instincts that have been passed down over the eons.

That’s why we talk about lives of dignity. Our priority should be building a society of mutual respect and making the world a better place.

What if the world did become a happy place? Young people would find their own way to love, and their love would be passionate — whether or not they have kids.

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

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