South Korea has such a low birth rate that it could become the world's oldest country by 2045, with an average age of 50. If things continue at this rate, the country could even go extinct by 2750. All that aging is putting the country into some dire economic straits.
Solving this demographic crisis will take more than national sex nights.
Richard Jackson, president of the nonprofit Global Aging Institute, argues that it could require a fundamental change in workplace and gender dynamics. "Policies that help women (and men) balance jobs and children are the linchpin of any effective pronatal strategy," he wrote in "The Graying of the Great Powers."
This is true of Korea more than anywhere else in the developed world, Jackson said in an interview with Tech Insider.
Skye Gould / Tech Insider
Simply put, most Korean women are forced to choose between a long-term career and children.
This dynamic shows up in countless statistics.
Women in South Korea earn just 65% of what men earn. The country placed 115 of 145 on The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index 2015, sandwiched between the African nations Burkina Faso and Zambia.
It's even more staggering when you compare women before and after having kids. A 2012 survey of 15 year olds found that Korean girls aspired to high-status careers more than boys. Korean women have a higher workforce participation in their 20s than men, but many women drop out of the labor force in the 30s. When they return in their 40s, they tend to get much less competitive jobs, according to the Economist.
According to the Korea Labour Institute, women spend five times as long taking care of children and the home than men. "There are not enough modern men for the newly educated women to marry," economist Jisoo Hwang told the Economist.
There's a lot of cultural momentum at work here. South Korea — which rose from being one of the poorest countries to one of the wealthiest — has one of the world's most extreme work cultures. Koreans work the third-longest hours of the OECD countries, and in the evenings it's expected that the whole team goes out to booze and bond, leaving little time to help out at home.
With those factors in mind, it's no wonder that more and more Korean women just aren't that interested in marriage or kids.
What can be done?
American Enterprise Institute political economist Nicholas Eberstadt tells Tech Insider that the best the Korean government can do to increase the birthrate is "work at the margins."
The birth rate isn't like the economy: there's no cutting interest rates to make it easier to borrow money and spur business investment, there's no switch to be flipped.
But promoting gender equality at work is a good start.
Jackson points to two models that work for other developed countries:
There's the "nanny state" model, like in France and Sweden. In these countries, you have a job guarantee if you take a maternity leave (and gender equality in Sweden is engineered so that if the mother of a child takes maternity leave, the father has to take paternity leave for the second child). In France, the government will give you "family allowances" for having more children. And there's no social stigma for a mother of young children going back to work; the kids are expected to go to publicly funded crèche (or daycares) — it's part of a child's socialization.
And then there's the "flexible labor" model, like in the United States. Though there isn't the same state support, it's become culturally normalized in the US to re-enter the workforce, work flexibly, and otherwise combine professional and familial ambitions. The flexible labor comes in form of parttime work, the ability to go back to school, getting degrees online, or starting a new career. While there are career opportunity costs to diverting your energy from work to family, it's better than in Japan or South Korea, Jackson says, places where if you step off the career ladder, you don't get back on.
Korea, like Japan, may be a better fit for the nanny state model, Jackson says.
Another thing that could help is immigration. Lots of people (mostly women) from countries like China and the Philippines are moving to South Korea for marriage, to the point that the number of mixed ethnic families grew 700% from 2006 to 2014. By 2030, it's estimated that 10% of the population will be made u[p of foreign-born families, compared with a little over 2% today. This means huge changes in cultural norms for a society where being "pure-blood" Korean has long been a praise-worthy trait.
Then there's the complicated effort to engineer new social norms around single parenting, fighting a huge stigma against unwed mothers. In a December 2015 statement, the South Korean finance ministry said that it plans "to change the social perception on various family forms to boost the birth rate," though the ministry didn't mention how it planned to do this.
Perhaps the biggest unknown is South Korea's neighbor to the north. If North and South were to reunify, Eberstadt says, the demographics would skew slightly younger and the birth rate would probably bump up. But beyond the estimated $500 billion cost, there are huge wildcards about the human resources of North Korea.
"We don't know what life expectancy is," says Eberstadt, who authored the books "The Population of North Korea" and "The End of North Korea." "It may have bounced back from Somalia levels," he says, "but we don't know if it exceed Russian federation, which is brutal for an educated, urbanized society. We don't know how urbanized it is — it may be more rural than we think. And critically, we don't really have any hard data about the actual education capability, educational training, and the health of the young working population in the North. That throws a huge question mark over any sort of discussion of the demography of the unified peninsula."
Despite the dangers faced by Korea getting older — like putting tremendous pressure on working age people to support elders and children — there are at least some benefits. For instance, the children of these less-populous generations stand to be well-educated given South Korea's remarkably thorough school culture, where grade schoolers go to math academy, English academy, and a music lesson after their "normal" school day finishes. If there are fewer kids, then even more resources can be devoted to their achievement.