Korea Shatters Its Own Record for World’s Lowest Fertility Rate
South Korea has broken its own record for the world’s lowest fertility rate, according to official figures released Wednesday, as the country struggles to reverse its years-long trend of declining births.
The country’s fertility rate, which indicates the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime, sunk to 0.81 in 2021 — 0.03% lower than the previous year, according to government-run Statistics Korea.
To put that into perspective, the 2021 fertility rate was 1.6 in the United States and 1.3 in Japan, which also saw its lowest rate on record last year. In some African countries, where fertility rates are the highest in the world, the figure is 5 or 6.
To maintain a stable population, countries need a fertility rate of 2.1; anything above that figure indicates population growth.
South Korea's birth rate has been falling since 2015, and in 2020 the country recorded more deaths than births for the first time - meaning the number of inhabitants declined, in what is called a "population death cross."
And as fertility rates fall, South Korean women are also having babies later. The median age of women giving birth in 2021 was 33.4 years, 0.2 years older than the previous year, according to the statistics agency.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s population is also getting older, indicating a demographic decline that experts fear will leave the country with too few people of working age to support its burgeoning elderly population — both by paying taxes and filling jobs in fields such as health care and home assistance.
As of last November, 16.8% of South Koreans were over 65 years old, while just 11.8% were age 14 or under.
That proportion of older Koreans is rising rapidly: it increased by more than 5% between 2020 and 2021, according to census data. Meanwhile, the working-age population - people aged 15 to 64 - declined by 0.9% between 2020 and 2021.
In South Korea and Japan, there are similar reasons behind the decline in births, such as demanding work cultures, stagnant wages, rising living costs and skyrocketing housing prices.
Many South Korean women say they do not have the time, money or emotional capacity to date, as they prioritize their careers in a highly competitive job market where they often face a patriarchal culture and gender inequality.
The South Korean government has introduced several measures in recent years to tackle the falling fertility rate, including allowing both parents to take parental leave at the same time and extending paid paternal leave.
Social campaigns have encouraged men to take on a more active role in childcare and housework, and in some parts of the country, authorities are handing out “new baby vouchers” to encourage parents to have more children.