It is widely known that South Korea confronts a toxic mix of a record-low fertility rate and a rapidly aging population. Even Tesla CEO and billionaire Elon Musk has his own view about these Korean issues.
“South Korea is currently tracking to lose about half its population roughly every generation. Long lifespan hides the dire nature of the problem,” the world’s richest person said on Twitter.
Musk’s tweet was in response to a question from a Twitter user citing an article from Bloomberg about Korea’s new plan to offer every family with a newborn a monthly allowance of 1 million won ($720) to “address the world’s lowest fertility rate.”
Indeed, South Korea’s birthrate -- a measure for the number of children a woman is likely to have during her child-bearing years -- is a dismal 0.81, far below the global average of 2.32 as of 2021. Given that the replacement level to support the current population needs to be about 2.1, the country’s fertility figure is certainly in the range of an existential crisis.
Equally worrisome is that there is no sign of a recovery in the continued decline in the fertility rate despite the government’s continued campaigns and incentives.
The ultralow fertility rate, coupled with an aging population, spells a number of troubles for policymakers, ranging from a shrinking tax base to support a growing number of the elderly to a chronic workforce shortage to a weakening of the economic growth momentum.
On Monday, Statistics Korea issued gloomy predictions on the related population change. It said the country’s population will shrink to 38 million in 2070, down from around 52 million this year. Worse, the country is set to have the world’s largest share of people aged 65 or older in 2044 as a result of unstoppable aging.
In detail, the share of the older population in the country will climb to 36.7 percent of the total population by 2044, overtaking Japan, the world’s most aged nation, with 36.5 percent, Statistics Korea said, citing data compiled from its 2020-70 forecast for the country’s population and the United Nations’ outlook for the global population.
The Korean government has poured in a record 380 trillion won to raise the fertility rate and shore up the shrinking population -- to no avail. As with the previous administration led by President Moon Jae-in, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is keen to cope with the festering population problem by implementing a set of initiatives including the allowance of 1 million won for a newborn baby, known here as “parent pay,” but experts warn that more long-term measures are in order.
For decades, fertility rates everywhere have been declining. Why is it that South Korea faces such a dire situation? The underlying reason is that young Koreans are reluctant to get married, which leads to fewer babies. This in turn results in a shrinking population in general and a decline in the workforce in particular.
Even before the country’s population began falling in 2021, policymakers were trying to handle the demographic time bomb caused by the decline in marriages and births. A variety of measures such as tax incentives and generous child benefits, however, proved not so effective.
The demographic crisis comes as young Koreans find it increasingly difficult to buy a house, especially in major cities like Seoul, where prices have gone up sharply in the past decade. Landing a job is also tough in a sluggish economy. This makes it hard for young Koreans to get married and settle.
More importantly, even newly married couples are hesitant to have children because of the burdensome cost of raising and educating their children -- another key reason for the stubbornly low birthrate.
The Yoon administration needs to come up with more effective policies, such as making it easier for Korean mothers to work in order to tackle the current demographic crisis and keep the population steady in the long run.