FOR MUCH of its history, South Korea worried about having too many babies. In the 1960s and 1970s the government set targets for family size. South Koreans were told that "even two are a lot". Sterilisation was subsidised. Today the country has the opposite problem. In 2006 the government set a goal of raising the total fertility rate—a measure of births per woman—from 1.2 to 1.6 by boosting child-care subsidies and cutting taxes for families. Yet instead of rising, the figure tumbled even lower. On August 28th new data showed that the fertility rate fell to 0.98 in 2018, from 1.05 in 2017. South Koreans are having fewer babies than ever.
In many ways, the country is a victim of its own success. The characteristics that correlate most strongly with small family size include income and education. On these measures, South Korea has performed better than almost any country in the world. The country’s rapid economic growth from the 1960s to the mid-1990s is considered an economic miracle. Today 70% of young South Koreans have a university degree, compared with 45% across the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.
But other features of South Korean society may be dragging birth rates down. For one, working hours are among the longest in the rich world. In 2018 South Koreans laboured for 39 hours per week on average, 16% above the OECD mean. Work at home, meanwhile, is not shared equally. A survey in 2018 by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, a think-tank, found that married women do about four times as much housework and three times as much child care as their husbands. Greater gender equality and less punishing working hours would encourage more childbearing. Until then, expect South Korea’s fertility rate to keep falling.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.