SEOUL – Yoo Young Yi’s grandmother gave birth to six children. The mother gave birth to two. Yu doesn’t want to.
“My husband and I love children very much… but there are things we would have to sacrifice if we were to raise children,” said Yu, a 30-year-old employee at a Seoul financial company. “So it became a matter of choosing between the two things, and we agreed to focus more on ourselves.”
There are many people like Yoo in South Korea who have chosen either not to have children or not to marry. Other advanced countries have similar trendsbut South Korea’s demographic crisis is much worse.
South Korea’s statistics agency announced in September that the total fertility rate — the average number of children born to each woman during her reproductive years — was 0.81 last year. This is the lowest figure in the world for the third year in a row.
The population shrank for the first time in 2021, raising concerns that the decline could take a serious toll on the economy — the world’s 10th largest — due to labor shortages and higher welfare costs as the number of elderly and reducing the number of taxpayers.
President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered politicians to find more effective steps to solve the problem. The birth rate, he said, is falling even as South Korea has spent 280 trillion won ($210 billion) over the past 16 years to try to turn things around.
Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not feel obligated to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a bleak job market, expensive housing, gender and social inequality, low levels of social mobility and the huge cost of raising children in a fiercely competitive society. Women also complain about a persistent patriarchal culture which forces them to do most of the child care while suffering discrimination at work.
“In a nutshell, people think that our country is not easy to live in,” said Lee So Young, a population policy expert at the Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs. “They believe that their children cannot live better than them, and therefore question why they should worry about having children.”
Many people who do not get into good schools or get decent jobs feel like they have become “castaways” who “cannot be happy” even if they get married and have children because South Korea lacks developed social protection systems , said Choi Yun-gyun, an expert at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education. She said South Korea failed to establish such welfare programs during its explosive economic growth in the 1960s and 1980s.
Yu, a financial worker from Seoul, said that until she entered college, she wanted a child badly. But she changed her mind when she saw office colleagues calling children from the office toilet to check on them, or leaving early when children were sick. She said her male colleagues shouldn’t do that.
“After seeing this, I realized that my concentration at work will be greatly reduced when I have children,” Yu said.
Her husband Jo Joon Hwi, 34, said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to have children. A translator for an information technology company, Joe said he wanted to enjoy life after years of grueling job hunting that left him “feeling like I was standing on the edge of a cliff”.
There is no official data on how many South Koreans choose not to marry or have children. But figures from the national statistics agency show that there were about 193,000 marriages in South Korea last year, up from 430,000 in 1996. The agency’s data also shows that about 260,600 babies were born in South Korea last year, up from 691,200 in 1996. and peaked at 1 million in 1971. The latest figures were the lowest since the statistics agency began collecting such data in 1970.
Kang Han-byul, a 33-year-old graphic designer who decided to stay single, believes that South Korea is not a good place to raise children. She cited frustration with gender inequality, widespread digital sex crimes against women, such as spy cameras hidden in public toilets, and a culture that ignores those who seek social justice.
“I can consider marriage when our society becomes healthier and gives more equal status to both women and men,” Kahn said.
Kang’s roommate Ha Hyun-ji, 26, also decided to stay single after her married friends advised her not to get married because most of the housework and childcare falls on them. Ha worries about the huge amount of money she would spend on private tuition for the children in the future to prevent them from falling behind in a nation obsessed with education.
“I can have fun without marriage and enjoy life with friends,” said Ha, who runs a cocktail bar in Seoul.
Until the mid-1990s, South Korea maintained birth control programs that were originally launched to slow the country’s post-war population explosion. The nation distributed free birth control pills and condoms at public health centers and offered exemptions from military training in the reserve to men if they had vasectomy.
United Nations data show that a single South Korean woman gave birth to an average of four to six children in the 1950s and 60s, three to four in the 1970s and fewer than two in the mid-1980s.
South Korea offers many benefits and other support programs for those who have many children. But Choi, the expert, said the birth rate is falling too quickly to see any tangible effects. During a meeting of a government task force last month, officials said they would soon formulate comprehensive measures to combat the demographic challenges.
South Korean society still frowns upon those who remain childless or single.
When Yu and Joe announced their decision to live without children on their YouTube channel in 2021, “You’re young, you’re young” some posted messages calling them “selfish” and asking them to pay more taxes. The reports also called Jo “sterile” and accused Yu of “gas lighting” her husband.
Lee Sung-jae, a 75-year-old resident of Seoul, said it was a “order of nature” for humanity to marry and have children.
“These days I see some (unmarried) young women walking around with dogs in strollers and saying they are their moms. Did they give birth to those dogs? They are really crazy,” he said.
Seo Ji-sung, 38, said that older people often call her a patriot for giving birth to many children, even though she did not give birth to them for the national interest. She is expecting her fifth child in January.
The Seo family recently moved into a free apartment in the city of Anyang, jointly provided by the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corporation and the city for families with at least four children. Seo and her husband, 33-year-old Kim Dong-wook, receive other government support, although raising four children remains a financial challenge.
Kim said he enjoys seeing each of his children grow up with different personalities and talents, while Seo believes their children’s social skills help with playing and competing with each other at home.
“They are all so sweet. That’s why I kept having babies, even when it was hard,” So said.
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