“Korea’s greatest threat” (JoongAng Daily January 26, 2015)

JoongAng Daily

“Korea’s greatest threat”


January 26, 2015

Emanuel Pastreich


Koreans are scratching their heads, asking themselves why efforts to address Korea’s dwindling birthrate have been so ineffective.

Although the government has implemented over 100 different policies since 2006 and has allocated a budget of 10 trillion won ($9.3 billion) for the last two years, the number of annual births per 1,000 members of the population is stuck at 1.19. That ranks Korea at No. 220 among nations for its birthrate in 2014. No other major country is even close to that rate.

The reason for the complete failure is simple. Koreans have completely failed to recognize the seriousness of the crisis and have not responded with an appropriate level of commitment in terms of policy or, more importantly, a shift in habits.

A birth rate like this could mean Korea itself will disappear as a culture in 100 years. The Korean language could join Manchu as a dead language that people learn about in history books.

It strikes me as bizarre that Koreans talk about the highly unlikely possibility of North Korea shelling Seoul, but they avoid this far more serious danger completely. Such a low birthrate is certainly a far greater threat than a lack of competitiveness in semiconductors or smartphones.

This crisis is, above all, a failure to address the needs of women in Korea. Korea presents a modern facade to the world and itself, but it has not taken the simple steps to assure that women can raise children. Because the low birthrate is related to problems in Korean society that most men are not interested in discussing, we go around pretending this crisis is not a massive priority.

But the sad truth is that although investment in making it easier to raise children and work, in ensuring an excellent education is free for everyone, should be Korea’s top priority, we have not even started to take the crisis seriously.

Just take a look at the workplace in Korea. We see hard-working women who are responsible for creating the Korean miracle doing their best as their male bosses sit behind their desks reading the newspaper. Those women cannot bring their children to work and they must spend many hours trying to feed and educate them on top of their work at the company. It is not a mystery why the birthrate has fallen.

All companies, research institutes, universities and government offices must maintain day care facilities on location where female employees can drop off their children and then can visit them during the day.

The primary concern in designing a workplace, or designing a city, should be making it possible for women to bring their children to work or wherever they go.

Such a shift may sound expensive, but in fact it is rather cheap compared with the costs of ignoring this demographic time bomb. We need to see a massive shift in priorities before we will see any improvement in the birth rate.

Quality schools should be free for Korean children, and those schools should provide all activities, from kindergarten through high school, so that there will no financial burden for training outside of school. For the next generation, until Korea returns to a replacement rate of two children per family, parents should not have to think about the costs of education when deciding how many children to have.

It should be not only possible, but even attractive, for women to pursue a career seriously and raise two or three children. To say that such a policy is not economically viable, as businessmen have told me over dinner while the women at their office were still at work, is simply a misunderstanding.

All you need to do is just stop the spending on drinking, on drivers for CEOs, on flying first class (or flying at all), on new construction of offices. We must do whatever it takes to make it possible for women to raise children and for those children to prosper.

Women who have children, or plan to have children, should be given priority in hiring and promotion. Moreover, women should be given credit for their work raising children that will help them in their promotion in the company.

And what if Korea’s competitiveness should slip because more people spend time raising their children? The answer is simple. Without a future, Korea does not have to worry about competitiveness. Anyone who thinks that spending on childcare and education is too expensive has simply not calculated the costs of the current trends for the next 20 or 30 years.

4 responses to ““Korea’s greatest threat” (JoongAng Daily January 26, 2015)

  1. Craig January 26, 2015 at 10:36 am

    I would endorse this, except that I think you’ve missed the issue entirely. Completely.

    This was said in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe 2- years ago. Many said this wasn’t the issue; and ti turned out that they were correct.

    This is likely more the case:

    Having children is expensive. The cost of raising children needs to drop. But empowering women in the workplace may have a tragically opposite effect: The more educated and empowered women are, the more their wish to have children drops.

    In the undeveloped or less developed world, there’s a direct correlation between the drop in birth rates and the educational status and economic power of women. The more power and the more education women have, the fewer children are born.

    This has been the same in places with extensive and impressive public programs; in fact, the public programs seem to exacerbate the no-kids problem. It’s bizarre, but true. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are basically self-exterminating. The only way they maintain growth is through population replacement by immigration. The culture is still self-exterminating.

    I’m not sure why this situation inevitably entails when women get more and more equal rights; I’m not sure what the reasoning is. But there are two factors involved.

    1) Children are expensive. Drop the price of having kids.
    2) Empowered women don’t want kids nearly as much as others.

    You’re talking a lot about 1). You’re not mentioning 2). It’s politically incorrect, and kind of offensive (to me, as well), … but it’s nevertheless abundant as a reason from the actual statistics.

    Women with options don’t want to be “national baby factories” – they want independence, choices and freedom. Children – no matter what arrangement they make – are the antithesis of freedom, involve the stripping of choices completely, and completely void independence.

    I suspect it’s the raising of expectations. When expectations rise, childrearing just seems much, much less attractive, or attractive solely as a notional activity. We need to have 2-2.5 children each to guarantee replacement. But most women with degrees, time and freedom seem to balk at any more than one child.

    When you add in the price of children – and the cost to both men and women – who would do it?

    If I wanted to make your position pragmatic, I would drop the cost of having kids, but if all you care about is actually increasing births, I would be careful when empowering women in the workforce. This has had profoundly negative effects on the birthrate elsewhere.

    It depends on what your goals are.

    If you just want more babies, then, …

  2. Craig January 26, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Women were not meant to be having their first children in their 30’s. This is one of the causes of low replacement rates. If anything, they end up with one or an average of much less than 2 children.

    For example, a new life path might be more practical if we only consider making babies and reasonably strong families (Binding the husbands and wives together for the interests of children).

    Instead of making it easier for women to delay marriage and support the one child they’r elikely to have afterwards, stage-manage a new life track:

    – Get married at 20-24
    – Have children young. Have more than one.
    – Make the raising of the kids when young much less expensive. Lower the burden on young couples – not older couples. Make them want to have babies *young*.
    – When kids get to 5-10 years old, women finish education. Make education free or effortless – have women work on their education while raising kids. Introduce policies to get mothers back into school and work-life tracks. Delayed admission to colleges, defrayed expenses, etc.
    – Women enter workforce in their early 30’s as kids age into the school system. Introduce lots of support for women re-entering the workforce.

    Upshot: Women will be in the workforce competing with younger men, but they’ll last through the workforce now without dropping out, having to take time off, and the workforce will be designed specifically to handle their raising of now much older children.

    It means we’re not emphasizing a man-like independence for women, but a different kind of self-sufficiency and independence. By obliging women to act exactly like men and follow a man’s life track, we may be completely sabotaging the having of actual babies.

    Women are the key to making babies, and they will need partners – men, presumably – to pay for those babies. We may have made a colossal cross-cultural mistake in assuming we could turn women into men. The first effect of this seems to have been the total sidelining of baby making.

    When we get down to it, baby making is still going to be the biological and likely the social preserve of women.

  3. Craig January 26, 2015 at 10:59 am

    But you’ve missed out on the other option.

    Population replacement.

    Korea can’t really fix these problems without profound social transformation and a complete rejigging of its entire social and economic order. So let’s just assume that any change will be incremental, and, in the end, irrelevant. You can’t resist the forces of demographics.

    I suggest that instead of micromanaging the lives of women, that instead Korea plan for its degeneration and demographic slide. In other words, invest NOW in elder care – so that it’s cheap and supportable later. Introduce housing systems and infrastructure, both social and financial.

    Korea could follow Denmark or Norway’s track.

    Import people.

    It requires ceasing to be ethnically exclusive. It means bringing in people and allowing them to slowly replace the native population – much like countries like Norway are doing.

    Telling women what to do seems unlikely to happen. That always goes over poorly. And empowering women in the way you suggest will almost certainly pull women away from breeding during the actual period where we need them to be breeding – their 20’s.

    The source of the problem is the massive disincentive to breed in your 20’s due to competition, ambition and future career demands. All the social programs in the world will just exacerbate this problem unless you encourage the career-path break:

    *** You must get women making babies in their 20’s, not planning for future workplace competition ***

    You can fix this by interventions to bring women back into the workforce without being distracted in their late 20’s-early 30’s, when their careers and educations will start (finish).

    If you empower women to be men, you’re going to have armies of 37 year-olds attempting to desperately have one baby before their 40’s. This is what’s happened in Europe and the West, generally. If you’re serious about this, you need to make having babies in your 20’s and putting women on the Mommy Track a very attractive option. You can assuage feminist concerns by re-focusing this track as women age into middle age. Then there’s no “leaving the workforce” punishment for women, no disincentive to have babies. They’ve already had them.

    And those women who want to opt out:

    We invest untold energy into a woman’s career, onyl to have a large number opt out because they’d rather just be moms. You can make this group bigger (conservatives) OR: You can avoid wasting those resources on them in the first place.

    The reversal of the mommy track would encourage those moms to stay at home – and have more kids, BTW, in which case you work on the men and getting their salaries up – and it would encourage those moms who had their 2 kids and want back in to give up having more kids after they’re done with it – by, say, the age of 27.

    So their careers run from, say, 28-60.

    Right now they run from about 23-60, with major interruptions that disincentivize having babies and then punish them for having taken time out.

    I suggest that if you’re serious, you do the opposite of what you suggest.

    In the workplace, you **empower older women** and **disempower** or ignore younger women.

    Favour young men over young women, to make those young men good marriage prospects and able to support mom while she raises some kids.

    Then, as the women go bac to the workforce, by the time they’re in their 50s, many will have moved into positions of influence and power and their now-adult children will be able to take advantage of mom’s career and status, as well.

    But if we just try to make men and women exactly the same, all evidence suggests that babies vanish.


    Accepting irrelevance and eventual stagnation and cultural replacement is almost certainly both less painful and more likely.

  4. Craig January 26, 2015 at 11:05 am

    Politically incorrect, but realistic.

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