S Korea breaks record for world’s lowest fertility rate, again

The number of babies expected per woman in South Korea dropped to 0.78 last year, down from 0.81 a year earlier.

A woman holding her baby in her arms looks at a view of Seoul shrouded by fine dust.
A woman holding her baby looks at a view of Seoul shrouded by fine dust during a polluted day in the South Korean capital in March 2019 [File: Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters]

South Korea has smashed its own record for the world’s lowest fertility rate again, according to official data.

The average number of expected babies per South Korean woman over her reproductive life fell to 0.78 in 2022, down from 0.81 a year earlier, according to data published by Statistics Korea on Wednesday.

The figure 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.

The South Korean capital, Seoul, logged the lowest birth rate of 0.59.

The plummeting birth rate has stoked worry that a declining population could severely damage the South Korean economy – the world’s 10th largest – because of labour shortages and greater welfare spending as the number of older people increases and the number of taxpayers shrinks.

The government has spent 280 trillion won ($210bn) over the past 16 years to reverse the falling birth rate, but has failed to turn the tide.

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped below one child per woman in 2018 and its population shrank for the first time in 2021.

A fertility rate of 2.1 per woman is needed for a population to remain the same, without migration.

Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not feel an obligation to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a bleak job market, expensive housing, gender and social inequality, low levels of social mobility, and the huge expense of raising children in a brutally competitive society.

Women also complain of a persistent patriarchal culture that forces them to do much of the childcare while enduring discrimination at work.

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government in December unveiled a series of measures to tackle South Korea’s falling birth rates, including measures to incentivise child-bearing and eliminate discrimination against women in the workplace, according to the Yonhap news agency. The government also pledged to take steps to provide affordable housing and more jobs for young people, it said.

The latest data from Statistics Korea showed that 249,000 babies were born in the country last year, down from 260,000 a year earlier.

The average age at which a woman gave birth also rose to 33.5 last year.

The number of deaths meanwhile stood at 372,800, up from the 317,680 recorded the previous year.

South Korea’s population peaked at 51.84 million in 2020 and fell to 51.74 million in 2021.

It is further expected to shrink to 37.66 million by 2070.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies