Despite major efforts to boost its population, the fertility rate in South Korea has dropped yet again — and the country already had the lowest fertility in the developed world.

According to South Korean government numbers in Statistics Korea, the average number of children per woman fell to .78 in 2022, from its previous low of .81 in 2021. The “replacement rate” — the number of births per woman in order to keep population numbers stable unless immigration can make up the difference — is 2.1 children per woman.

“That is the lowest among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), which had an average rate of 1.59 in 2020, and far below 1.64 in the United States and 1.33 in Japan the same year,” Reuters reported. It noted that in 2020 it was the only OECD-member country to have a rate below 1.0, “giving it a shrinking population.”

CNN reported that South Korea recorded more deaths than births in 2020 and has continued to do so. The birth rate has been dropping for more than eight years.

“In 2022, the country recorded about 249,000 births and 372,800 deaths,” the article said.

The pandemic made things worse. Because COVID-19 boosted the number of deaths, the gap between births and deaths is expected to narrow some unless the virus resurges dramatically.

Neighboring Japan, which has long been pointed to as an example of an aging population that could face struggles as a result of too few births, has a fertility rate of 1.3.

Like elsewhere in the world, including the United States, South Korean women are also having their first child at older ages — in 2022, the average age of first childbirth was 33.5 years there. In the United States, the Deseret News reported the age of first-time moms was a historic 27.3 years old in 2021.

The rising cost of shrinking

Efforts to bolster fertility have not worked in South Korea, despite a reported investment of about $200 billion over 16 years by way of cash incentives. Those efforts have included paid parental leave, including paternity leave, so-called “baby vouchers” to new parents and more. The South Korean government has provided subsidies for child care, for pregnancy and to help with the cost of giving birth, among other measures.

The Washington Post noted some of the challenges facing South Korea as a result of its shrinking population: “This demographic slump is bogging down the growth prospects of Asia’s fourth-largest economy. In one example, some 300 public schools closed across the country over the past decade.”

Related
What does the declining U.S. fertility rate say about housing sales, Social Security and college?
As Utah’s fertility rate drops, is it time to talk about children as a ‘public good?’

The article notes other challenges, too. “As South Korea’s working-age population shrinks, a shortage in tax revenue is a major concern amid the growing burden of elderly care. Official estimates show that South Korea’s pension fund is expected to run out by 2055.”

The Washington Post notes that while cash incentives have not been effective, other policies might be. “Experts say policies should tackle more fundamental problems that drain family resources, such as limited living space, long work hours and a cutthroat education landscape in the highly competitive society. Women’s rights advocates point to sexist norms that make it hard for working women to balance a career and motherhood.”

A number of articles said that housing costs and work demands play a role in the decline of both fertility and marriage.

NIkkei Asia reported that the number of marriages in South Korea also fell to a record low of 191,697 in 2022.

And marriage and childbirth are closely related in the country, with stigma attached to giving birth without being married. Some benefits have also traditionally not been available for unwed parenting in South Korea.

Worldwide focus on fertility

A study by the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University found that “in OECD countries, later marriage tends to mean lower fertility, while births outside of marriage don’t completely make up for the lost marital births,” as the Deseret News reported in October.

The Deseret News has explored the worries that go along with falling fertility in America and around the world.

Demographer Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and one of that report’s authors, said it’s likely that folks would be “more inclined to have children if their governments created policies to improve the quality of life for young adults and families.”

The Deseret News reported on a Bowling Green State University study showing that a woman’s age at both first birth and last birth is important: “The beginning and the ending of having children are tied together in ways that shape the future economy, a woman’s ability to have the number of children she wants, the coming workforce and even whether neighborhoods build or shutter schools. Questions of maturity and resources — not all financial — come into play. And this particular landscape has been changing for many years.”

Other ramifications of a low fertility rate, as Deseret News reported in 2021, are women not having the number of children they desire and a possible increase in loneliness in old age, as well as an impact on schools, the economy, entrepreneurship, amassing personal wealth and even for relationships.

Research suggests that the workforce and social safety net in countries are both at risk without robust succeeding generations of workers and parents. Economic stagnation and a too-weak safety net are real possibilities, experts have said.