The Incredibly Shrinking Nation of South Korea

The Incredibly Shrinking Nation of South Korea

The South Korean population will decrease by 14 million over the next 50 years. One often cited reason is the financial burden of parenthood.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

The South Korean population currently stands at about 52 million.

In a finding published on Dec 9, Statistics Korea, a government agency, predicts that by 2070 this figure will drop below 38 million. And nearly a half of them will be over the age of 65.

With the base unit of 10,000, 3,766 represents 37.66 million (source: Statistics Korea)

Depopulation and aging trouble other countries, too, but the 2019 data from the World Bank confirms that South Korea's problem—caused by lack of childbirth—is acute.

That year, South Korea's fertility rate per woman (the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime) was 0.92, already the lowest among the countries surveyed. Last year it was an even more dismal 0.84.

Assuming that there is no major uptick in mortality and few migrants move to South Korea, the fertility rate per woman for the national population to remain stable needs to be 2.1.

That South Koreans aren't having children is no news, and explanations for it have been numerous. Among them, it's true that prevailing gender inequality and the unfair burden on mothers to serve as primary caregivers to children are putting women off motherhood.

But the perceived financial burden of having children is a significant yet overlooked cause. Many young people openly say they cannot have children in South Korea because it's too costly. The idea of being a good parent in Korea is tightly linked to money, and living up to that ideal is proving to be hard.

The price of living is just the start. South Korea doesn't always come up on top when the world's most expensive countries are discussed, but inflation is a serious problem. The cost of groceries in particular has caused concern, registering a staggering increase of 7.8 percent in August compared to the same month in 2020.

The housing prices are another matter. By October the average price of a home had risen nearly 20 percent in the one-year period preceding it. An "84-square-meter home (a popular size in South Korea) in [Seoul] is estimated to cost more than 1 billion won"—842,000 USD—says a damning article in the English-language daily The Korea Herald from that month.

If that doesn't sound like enough of a deterrence, the actual cost of raising a child is also an obstacle. In 2016 the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family commissioned an intriguing survey of mothers-to-be and mothers with children up to the age of nine.

According to them, on average 31 percent of household expenditures went toward children, corresponding to roughly 1.1 million won—about 902 USD in today's exchange rate.

A direct comparison is impossible, but a similar study exists in the US. Using 2015 data, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculated that the monthly cost of raising a child in the US for a "a middle-income ($59,200-$107,400), two-child, married-couple family" was approximately 769 USD, when the cost of housing wasn't factored in.

That's not a huge difference between the two countries, but the average household disposal income per capita in South Korea is only about half that of the US.

No wonder 90 percent of respondents to the gender equality and family ministry survey said they found the cost of raising children to be a burden.

Where does all this money go?

In light of South Korea's famous education fervor, one obvious expenditure is private education, which took up 64.1 percent of costs for raising children between the ages of 7 and 9.

When it came to children between 4 and 6, "child care and institutions"—a reference to daycare and kindergartens—accounted for 37.2 percent of the money.

English-language kindergartens taught by foreign teachers are costly but popular among South Korean parents of means.

Then there are the hidden costs of maintaining appearance. 96.2 percent of the survey respondents said, "There is a clearly over-consumerist dimension to our society's child-raising culture." If that doesn't make sense, look at the average amount spent on the first birthday of the eldest child in the family. It's 2.6 million won or 2,189 USD, a vast sum just for celebrating a baby's special day.

Beyond this survey, the expectation for South Korean parents to provide support beyond their children's age of majority has always been high. University tuition is one thing. Chipping in for the cost of wedding and housing (even an apartment purchase deposit) after children's marriage isn't uncommon. That's a lot of money for parents to cough up.

This begs a simple question: wouldn't South Koreans have more children if they are given or had more money? Why doesn't the government just provide generous subsidies to parents?

Believe me, they have been trying it already.

The government will even increase from next year on the incentives offered to parents-to-be. A one-time two million won (1,864 USD) bonus awaits those who give birth, and an additional 300,000 won (253 USD) is on offer each month until the child turns two, not to mention a maximum six million won (5,051 USD) maternity/paternity leave subsidy if parents take time off work during the first twelve months of the baby's life.

All this will cost the country 9.5 trillion won (eight billion USD) over a period of five years, but few believe the policy will work.

A well-publicized 2017 study by professor Song Heon-jae at the University of Seoul drew on the insights of 1992 Nobel economics prize winner Gary Becker on fertility to lay bare the inner workings of South Korean parents' mind.

In South Korea a higher level of income correlates surprisingly with fewer children, not more. Explaining this situation, Song says that even with more financial resources, South Korean parents prefer to invest all their money in a single child in order to maximize their potential rather than to have several children and divide the limited assets among them.

Using Becker's model of comparing parenthood to a car purchase makes it easier to understand. People with money will not buy two Hyundai sedans; they will go for a Mercedes. If they have even more money, enough for two Mercedes, they might opt for a single Ferrari instead.

One exceptional child is better than two conventional children, the South Korean thinking seems to be, if Song is right.

An article, by researcher Oh Ji-hye at Yonsei University from last year, also illustrates the strange effect of growing inequality on the fertility rate. She contends that "financial assets and educational background of paternal grandparents had positive effect on childbirth."

In other words, wealthy South Korean grandparents (who provide handsome support) can increase how many children the parents have.

Together the two studies suggest that the small amount of state subsidy given to a family will not be sufficient to convince young South Koreans to have children. What the government offers may be enough to pay for basic costs of having and raising a young child, but not enough to finance a child's life according to the standard that has become the norm in South Korean society today. Either the subsidy has to be much bigger, or the government should turn to another solution.

But it might be too late anyway.

When I think about friends below the age of 40 in South Korea, most don't have children regardless of marital status, nor do they say they want to. The phenomenon of "no-kids zone" a few years ago, which banned children from hip businesses popular with young people, telegraphed a growing anti-children mood in the country.

No-Kids Zones and the Myth of “Parasitic Mothers”
A year ago, a friend of mine, a female radio producer in Seoul, confided that visiting someone who had just given birth horrified her. She talked about this young mother as being cooped up in the apartment all day while her husband worked, and feeling her intelligence diminishing to the

Confirming this trend were the recently published Pew Research Center survey results, which showed that only three percent of South Korean respondents under the age of 30 saw family and children as giving them any meaning or satisfaction in life.

A different survey a year ago by the business daily Maeil Economy revealed 81 percent of unmarried South Koreans between the ages of 20 and 39 dreaded having a child, many of them for economic reasons.  

When parenthood is seen as requiring such a big financial commitment, it makes sense that so many young South Koreans are dismissing it entirely as an option. Rather than fretting over how to have a child they believe they cannot afford, young people increasingly prefer to focus on themselves.

Unless that fundamental definition of parenting changes in South Korea into something that doesn't need to be grounded in wealth, the country may just well accept that a childless future is here to stay.

Cover: a nearly empty playground in South Korea (credit: Jinho Jung via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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