Yoo Young Yi’s grandmother gave birth to six children. His mother gave birth to two. Yoo doesn’t want it.
“My husband and I love babies so much…but there are some things we would have to sacrifice if we were raising children,” said Yoo, a 30-year-old employee of the Seoul financial company. “So it became a matter of choosing between two things, and we agreed to focus more on ourselves.”
There are many like Yoo in South Korea who have chosen not to have children or marry. Other advanced countries have similar trends, but South Korea’s demographic crisis is far worse.
South Korea’s statistics agency announced in September that the total fertility rate – the average number of babies born to each woman of childbearing age – was 0.81 last year. This is the lowest in the world for the third consecutive year.
The population fell for the first time in 2021, fueling concerns that a declining population could seriously harm the economy – the 10th largest in the world – due to labor shortages and rising social spending as the number of older people increases and the number of taxpayers decreases.
President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered policymakers to find more effective measures to solve the problem. The fertility rate, he said, is plunging even though South Korea has spent 280 trillion won ($210 billion) over the past 16 years to try to reverse the trend.
Many young South Koreans say that unlike their parents and grandparents, they don’t feel pressured to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a sluggish job market, expensive housing, social and gender inequality, low levels of social mobility and the huge expense of raising children in a brutally competitive society. Women also complain of a persistent patriarchal culture that forces them to do a great deal of childcare while facing discrimination at work.
“In a nutshell, people think our country is not an easy place to live,” said Lee So-Young, a population policy expert at the Korea Institute for Health and Welfare. “They believe their children can’t have a better life than them, so they wonder why they should bother having babies.”
Many people who fail to get into good schools and get decent jobs feel they have become “dropouts” who “cannot be happy” even if they get married and have children because that South Korea lacks advanced social safety nets, said Choi Yoon Kyung, an expert with the Korea Institute of Child Welfare and Education. She said South Korea failed to establish such social welfare programs during its explosive economic growth from the 1960s to 1980s.
Yoo, the financial worker from Seoul, said that until she goes to college, she really wants a baby. But she changed her mind when she saw co-workers calling their children from the company bathroom to check on them or leaving early when their children were sick. She said her male colleagues didn’t have to.
“After seeing this, I realized that my concentration at work would be greatly diminished if I had babies,” Yoo said.
Her 34-year-old husband, Jo Jun Hwi, said he didn’t think it was necessary to have children. An interpreter at an information technology company, Jo said he wanted to enjoy his life after years of intensive job hunting that had left him “feeling like he was on the edge of a cliff”.
There are no official figures on the number of South Koreans who have chosen not to marry or have children. But records from the national statistics agency show there were around 193,000 marriages in South Korea last year, down from a peak of 430,000 in 1996. The agency’s data also shows that around 260,600 babies were born in South Korea last year, down from 691,200 in 1996, and a peak of 1 million in 1971. The recent figures were the lowest since the statistics agency began compiling such data in 1970.
Kang Han Byeol, a 33-year-old graphic designer who has decided to stay single, thinks South Korea is not a good place to raise children. She cited frustration with gender inequality, widespread digital sex crimes targeting women, such as hidden spy cameras in public restrooms, and a culture that ignores those advocating for social justice.
“I will be able to consider marriage when our society becomes healthier and gives more equal status to women and men,” Kang said.
Kang’s 26-year-old roommate Ha Hyunji also decided to stay single after her married friends advised her not to get married because most of the household chores and childcare fell to them. Ha worries about the huge amount of money she would spend on tutoring any future children to keep them from falling behind in an education-obsessed nation.
“I can have a fun life without marriage and enjoy my life with my friends,” said Ha, who runs a cocktail bar in Seoul.
Until the mid-1990s, South Korea maintained birth control programs, which were initially initiated to slow the country’s post-war population explosion. The nation distributed free birth control pills and condoms at public medical centers and offered exemptions from military reserve training for men if they had a vasectomy.
United Nations figures show that the average South Korean woman gave birth to around four to six children in the 1950s and 1960s, three to four in the 1970s and less than two in the mid-1980s.
South Korea offers a variety of incentives and other support programs for those who give birth to many children. But Choi, the expert, said the fertility rate had fallen too quickly to see any tangible effects. At a government task force meeting last month, officials said they would soon formulate comprehensive measures to address demographic challenges.
South Korean society still frowns on those who remain childless or unmarried.
In 2021, when Yoo and Jo posted their decision to live without children on their YouTube channel, “You Young You Young,” some posted messages calling them “selfish” and asking them to pay more taxes. The posts also called Jo “sterile” and accused Yoo of “gaslighting” her husband.
Lee Sung-jai, a 75-year-old Seoul resident, said it was “nature’s order” for mankind to marry and give birth to children.
“These days I see young (single) women walking around with dogs in strollers and saying they are their moms. Did they give birth to these dogs? They are really crazy,” he said. declared.
Seo Ji Seong, 38, said she was often called a patriot by older people for having many babies, although she did not deliver them for the national benefit. She is expecting a fifth baby in January.
Seo’s family recently moved to a rent-free apartment in Anyang City, which was jointly provided by the Korea Land and Housing Corporation and the city for families with at least four children. Seo and her husband, Kim Dong Uk, 33, receive other state aid, even though raising four children is still economically difficult.
Kim said he enjoys seeing each of his children grow up with different personalities and talents, while Seo believes their children’s social skills are helped when they play and compete against each other at home.
“They are all so cute. That’s why I kept delivering babies even though it’s hard,” Seo said.
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