<span>[Opinion] </span>More Babies Only in a Fairer Labour Market

Posted on : 2020-05-12 17:21 KST Modified on : 2020-05-12 17:21 KST

Fertility decline is common among advanced economies, but Korea’s fertility decline is without example in known human history. In 2018, the total fertility rate dropped below one – and this, combined with impressive life expectancy gains, makes Korea a super-fast ageing society and ultimately, assuming fertility rates and immigration levels remain constant, the country’s population will begin to fall in 2030. These demographic changes have far-reaching implications not only for the Korean society and its welfare systems but also the Korean economy – there can be no doubt that the shrinking of the working-age population jeopardizes the country’s growth potential and future prosperity.

To reverse this fertility decline, family policy has seen remarkable expansion under successive governments, and especially the improvement in childcare provision deserves acknowledgement. This path shift in family policy reflects an international consensus that policies helping with the reconciliation of employment and care responsibilities, especially for women, promote higher fertility rates. However, in Korea, these policies have not yet translated into any perceivable improvement in fertility levels. In fact, the fertility rate has continued in free fall – seemingly unresponsive to changes in work-family policy.

Without downplaying the contribution of work-family policy to an innovative policy mix for social progress, it is obvious that these policies are insufficient to avert the looming demographic crisis. Work-family policy fails to address a key social foundation of the country’s ultra-low fertility: that is the severe dualism in the labour market. Deregulation has driven labour market dualization which has produced feelings of permanent insecurity for an ever-larger part of the working-age population. Attitudinal research reveals that concerns about career and labour market outcomes play a significant role in young Koreans’ family planning: more than eight in ten men and women agree or strongly agree that not having sufficient income security to maintain marriage was a reason for “people postponing or not getting married at all”, while similar proportions agree or strongly agree that “failing to get a job or [finding it] difficult to get a secure job” was another reason. If employment stability, income security and thus the ability to provide well for children are perceived as potentially remote prospects, this can act as a powerful mechanism depressing the long-term commitment to family and children; and the absence of adequate social protection aggravates the current and perceived future vulnerability from outsiderness in the labour market.

The effect of labour market dualization is amplified by the fact that dualization is gendered, and the persistence of rather traditional gender roles in the family add to the challenges young women face. Work-family conflict is extreme, and temporary withdrawal from employment presents a significant sacrifice for women in good employment in particular when they are unlikely to regain insider employment upon their return. Unsurprisingly, Korean women are among the most likely in the world to agree with the statement that children “restrict the career chances of one or both parents”. Given the stark choices facing Korean women, it should be no surprise that young women are increasingly choosing not just to postpone, but to forego having children altogether.
Dualization does not stop here – it also puts mounting pressure on parents to invest in the education of their off-spring. According to available survey data, three quarters of Koreans believe that educational attainment determines one’s life, and the prestige of universities is widely thought to shapes one’s life chances. Hence, Korean parents mobilize extraordinary monies for private tutoring, even though the prospect of entering the most prestigious universities for insider employment has become ever more distant. But dualization has created a ruthless “winner-takes-all” labour market which does not appear to leave parents any other choice. The burden of private education thus needs to be considered carefully in family planning encouraging parents to have fewer children – to prioritize “quality” over “quantity”.
There can be little question that Korea is caught in a low-fertility trap, and much of this negative equilibrium rests on permanent insecurity driven by labour market dualization. If policymakers wish to address the country’s persistent ultra-low fertility, they cannot avoid tackling labour market dualism and social vulnerability head-on. Without a fairer labour market and social protection that address the fear of permanent insecurity, the demographic tsunami will gain further speed with unseen social and economic damage.


(The column is co-authored by Soohyun Lee, Assistant Professor, King’s College London.)

Dr Timo Fleckenstein is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Dr Soohyun Christine Lee a Korea Foundation Assistant Professor in the Department of European and International Studies at King’s College London.The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]
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