South Korea reports world’s lowest fertility rate for the second time

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Monday 12th September 2022

South Korea has recorded the world’s lowest fertility rate for the second time. New figures have raised concerns, with statistics revealing a further decline since 2018. In 2018, the country reported a birth rate of less than 1.0 for the first time. The latest data shows that the rate has fallen from 0.84 to 0.81. This is the sixth consecutive year of decreases.

The fertility rate in South Korea is significantly lower than in other countries, despite global downward trends. Among the most economically developed nations, the average rate is 1.6. According to experts, a fertility rate of at least 2.1 is required to maintain population size without migration. The gap between this figure and the fertility rate in South Korea will set alarm bells ringing among ministers, economists and health experts.  Many developed countries have recorded falling fertility rates in the last 60 years. However, the pace of the reduction in South Korea has been particularly noticeable. In the 1970s, the average woman in South Korea had four children. Today, the fertility rate is lower than 1 and figures are declining year on year. 

South Korea recorded more deaths than births for the first time ever in 2020 prompting widespread concern about the future of the economy and the ability to support older generations, fill job vacancies and protect the nation through military defences. Experts believe there are multiple factors that have influenced trends in South Korea, including changes in career options for women and financial pressures. The Covid pandemic has contributed to rising living costs, increased house prices and changing attitudes among couples. 

One issue highlighted by experts is the gender gap in the workplace. Women in South Korea have very high levels of education and training but the gender pay gap is one of the highest in the developed world. Women are still responsible for housework and raising children in most families, and as a result, their career aspirations tend to fall by the wayside once they get pregnant or have children.
For many women who may be thinking about having a baby, it is still a case of deciding between having a career and being a mother.  The government has invested heavily in trying to boost the birth rate and grow the population. However, statistics show that rates are continuing to fall despite measures, including policies that incentivise having children. 

Ministers have known about declining fertility rates for several years but there has been no increase in the number of children and more women are choosing not to have a baby. Living costs are spiralling and some women want to pursue career ambitions. One woman told reporters that women in the country are on a “baby-making strike.”

South Korea is not the only nation with a worryingly low fertility rate. In some parts of Europe, rates are also falling. The nations with the lowest rates include Malta (1.13), Spain (1.19) and Italy (1.24). The rate in the UK is 1.74. Rates have also decreased by 0.53% since 2021 in Canada (1.49). In the US (1.70), China (1.70) and India (2.20), the fertility rate has also fallen significantly in the last decade.