Concerns for the Future: Population Decline and Counter-productive Gender Norms

(This is the second blog post in a series of similar posts on gender equality in South Korea – Click here for the first post in the series)

Last year, South Korea’s population declined for the first time, with the fertility rate dropping to an all-time low. Although an increase in unemployment and falling incomes driven by the pandemic have contributed to the large drop, these figures have highlighted the ongoing demographic challenges of a contracting population. As a result, the government is under growing pressure to change critical policies to mitigate the fallout of a rapidly aging society and one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. One of the many factors affecting population decline is South Korean women’s growing unwillingness to have children due to the societal challenges it entails. Pressure to adhere to traditional gender roles and an unsupportive workplace culture are disincentivizing women to have children.

Advice for Pregnant Women

In March, the Seoul city government sparked outrage when a bizarre set of municipal guidelines for pregnant women surfaced. The advice published on the website of the Seoul Pregnancy and Childbirth Information Centre contained recommendations (since removed) for expectant mothers in different stages of their pregnancy and was panned for invoking antiquated gender stereotypes. The Centre advised pregnant women to continue doing household duties and consistently look at clothes that they wore before their pregnancy to encourage “healthy weight”. In preparation for going to the hospital to give birth, women were also told to prepare meals and clean clothes for their husbands who are “unaccustomed to cook”. After giving birth, they should also think about their appearance; not to look “disheveled” and therefore they are advised to use a hairband. In the end, the advice was taken down after massive criticism. Its influence, though, is still felt, and it has revived the discussion over why so many South Korean women increasingly are choosing not to have children — a rather concerning trend for a country dealing with a shrinking and aging population.

Population Decline

South Korea’s fertility rate fell to 0.84 last year, making it the lowest in the world. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, the average South Korean woman had just 1.1 children, compared to the global average of around 2.5 children. A major component in South Korea’s population paradox is that the fertility rate does not meet the replacement threshold of 2.1, the point at which the total number of children born per woman in a population exactly balances off the number of deaths. Without migration, there aren’t enough children born in South Korea to keep the population stable ultimately resulting in demographic contraction. According to a UN forecast, if current trends continue, South Korea’s population will be approximately 29 million by 2100, the same as it was in 1966. Such a decline would push up South Korea’s dependency ratio and have detrimental economic and societal consequences.

Gender Roles and the Double Burden

Women’s participation in the workplace has increased as the South Korean government has taken a number of steps to promote better work-life balance, including revamping the parental-leave system and increasing the number of daycare centers. Despite government action, traditional gender norms continue to hamper progress in many areas. For instance, the notion that women should be caregivers and be responsible for the main household duties is still prevalent. As a result, many female workers are hesitant to start a family or marry as they do not want the double burden of dealing with a career and being the main caregiver of the family. These gendered expectations undermine women in the workplace as employers assume that a female worker will eventually take parental leave. Faced with simultaneous societal and professional pressures emanating from traditional gender roles, it may be unsurprising that South Korean women increasingly choose not to have children.

South Korea’s large population drop last year has increased pressure on the government to change relevant policies. The government’s newest five-year plan to combat ‘Low Fertility and Aging Society,’ unveiled in December 2020, contained several policies to improve work-life balance for both men and women. In the next years, it will be interesting to see how effective these initiatives are. However, true transformation will not be achievable without a fundamental change in societal values, particularly gender norms. Falling back on traditional gender expectations when giving counsel to South Korean pregnant women is an example of counter-productive tactics that exacerbate the problem.

The recent population decline has heightened the urgency to eliminate persisting gender stereotypes and demonstrated that aiming for a more gender-equal society in South Korea and moving away from old gender norms is not only a worthwhile goal in and of itself, but is also essential for the population’s future.