Low childbirth alarm goes off

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 13 Apr 2003

SEOUL: Korea's population grew by 0.63% over the past year, but demographers predict a net decline beginning in the next decade at the earliest. Seeing a red warning light flashing, social welfare officials are already working on high-fertility incentives, and other measures, to encourage childbirth. 

As many Koreans feel that they live in one of the world's most over-populated countries, the idea of fewer people living on this narrow land is a relief. Images of less traffic congestion, less crowded parks and beaches and an easier time in finding housing must enter their minds, along with other visions of a higher quality of life. 

But officials seem to have different thoughts: who will feed the growing number of elderly? 

At present, people aged 65 or older account for some 8% of the total population, and those aged 14 and under make up 20%. These figures indicate a significant increase in the size of the senior age bracket, and a decrease in the overall number of productive people. 

Life expectancy has reached the level of advanced countries, averaging 75.6 years, which breaks down as 79.2 years for women and 71.7 years for men.  

Experts predict that within 20 years, one out of every five people in Korea will be 65 years or older. 

Korea is quickly following neighbour Japan in the demographic picture while social preparedness for national ageing remains far behind. Taxpayers' money rather than family ties should take care of the aged in our society too. 

Two “lows” and two “highs” are being cited as determinants of Korea's peculiar population developments. Fewer and fewer men and women get married, and married women have fewer children, to register the “dangerously” low fertility rate of 1.3, reputedly the second lowest among OECD countries. 

Meanwhile, average marriage age nears 30 years, two years higher than 10 years ago, and the divorce rate is truly alarming – nearly 400 couples separate every day, showing a 2.5 times growth in 10 years.  

Elevated women's status explains many of these changes. More and more women have jobs, but insufficient childcare facilities in the neighbourhood or at workplaces discourage them from having children. 

Besides, there is the general departure from the traditional role of women among independent-minded women. The common pattern found in the highly-educated women is late or no marriage, minimum number of children and a high rate of divorce. 

Male preference in Korean society has long helped population growth as married couples kept having children until they had a boy. This concept has conspicuously been changed and most of them do not care but even those who maintain the traditional attitude has other means to resort to, such as the detection of foetus' gender and artificial abortion. 

Changes come real fast in our society and infrastructures and government policies are always late to cope with any developments. With regard to the anticipated population decline, there is the need for all public and social institutions to pool their brains to analyse problems and seek solutions, not leaving the task up to public welfare offices. 

First and foremost, setting up the optimum level of population should be studied in consideration of the total living space in the territory, the wealth of national resources and even the eventuality of reunification with North Korea.  

Then social education should be directed to this clear picture of the nation's future, which needs to be drawn up with the help of the authorities of the education, labour, defence and other government functions. 

The education sector has to share greater responsibility in taking care of population problems as the high cost of teaching in and outside school at present is the primary factor for parents in deciding how many children they would have.  

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