The threat of low fertility rates in South Korea

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

In South Korea, low birth rates pose an important threat to society. The current fertility rate is estimated at 0.84 children per women (Lee, 2020). This means that the population is increasingly shrinking. At the moment, many Koreans decide to delay or avoid marriage (Kown & Yeung, 2019). The causes for this are multi-faceted and range from discrimination at the job market to the burden of care work. The government tried to counteract this development by providing financial incentives to young couples. Whether this approach is sufficient remains to be seen.

Causes of low fertility rates

The job market poses an important problem. Many women feel that they have to choose between a career and children. They have the impression that children are a significant impediment to a career (Gladstone, 2021). Women are expected to care for children, so that a return to the previous full-time job is very unlikely (Stangarone, 2019). Women may also face “questions about their marriage status and plans for having children when applying for a job” even though these questions are technically illegal (but the fines in case of law breaking are relatively low, so that firms are still willing to ask these questions) (Stangarone, 2019). Furthermore, the gender pay gap is with 35 percent the highest pay gap among OECD countries which have an average gap of 13,8 percent (Stangarone, 2019). Additionally, the work culture is very challenging with an average of 1967 hours of work per year (37,8 hours per week) (OECD, 2019).

The burden of care work

There are also social factors contributing to the decrease in the fertility rate. Koreans point to unsatisfactory childcare services as reason for not having a baby (Lee, 2020). Women carry most of the burden of care work (Peters, 2020). They work four times more in the household as men (Peters, 2020). It is thus not surprising that women prefer to work and earn money (instead of doing unpaid care work at home).  

Living and housing conditions

Suboptimal living conditions are also playing a role. Housing and rental prices are continuously rising and it is hard to find and adequate housing arrangement (Lee, 2020).  It is thus difficult for a young family to find an affordable and appropriate home.

Implications of decreasing birth rates

A shrinking and ageing population poses certain risks. It is important for a society, that there is a balance between the number of old people and children born. A decline in birth rates and an increase in life expectancy means a burden for the labor force. However, if the birth rate is too low to “stabilize its population”, migration might be an option to reduce the burden for the labor force.

Reaction of the South Korean government

Moon Jae-in, the South Korean President, tries to incentivize couples to get children. At birth, a couple is rewarded with 2 million won ($1,826) and there will be an extra amount of cash bonus every month (Gladstone, 2021). Furthermore, a young family may also expect “increased medical and other benefits” (Gladstone, 2021). In terms of the working conditions, the maximal number of working hours has been reduced from 68 hours to 52 hours per week in 2018 (Peters, 2020).


The causes of low fertility rates in South Korea are multi-faceted. The working conditions for women, however, seem to play a very important role. Especially for working mothers, it would be important that burdens for childcare are eliminated and that the working conditions are more flexible (Stangarone, 2019).

photo by Rod Long published on Unsplash


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