In the past 60 years, South Korea has experienced the fastest fertility decline in recorded human history. In 1960, the country’s total fertility rate—the number of children a woman has on average during her reproductive years—was just under six children per woman.
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If a demographer who has done extensive research on Asian populations over the past four decades, I know that this prolonged and sharp decline will have huge consequences for South Korea.
Older, poorer, more dependent
Countries need a total fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman to replace their population, when the effects of immigration and emigration are ignored. And South Korea’s fertility rate has been consistently below that number since 1984, when it fell from 2.17 the year before to 1.93.
What makes the drop in South Korea’s fertility rate even more astonishing is the relatively short period of time it has taken place.
In 1800, the total fertility rate in the US was well above 6.0. But it took the US about 170 years to consistently fall below replacement levels. In addition, in the little over 60 years that South Korea’s fertility rate fell from 6.0 to 0.8, the US saw a more gradual decline from 3.0 to 1.7.
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Fertility decline can have a positive effect under certain circumstances, via something demographers refer to as “the demographic dividend.”
This dividend refers to accelerated increases in a country’s economy that follow a decline in birth rates and subsequent changes in age composition that result in more people of working age and fewer dependent young children and the elderly.
And that’s what happened in South Korea – a decline in fertility helped convert South Korea from a very poor country to a very wealthy.
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Behind the economic miracle
By then, South Korea was languishing after seeing it economy and society destroyed by the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. By the late 1950s, South Korea was indeed one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1961, the annual income per capita was only about US$82.
But the dramatic increase in economic growth began in 1962, when the South Korean government introduced a five-year economic development plan.
Crucially, the government also introduced a population planning program to lower the country’s fertility rate. This included a goal to achieve 45% of married couples use birth control – until then very few Koreans used birth control.
This further contributed to the reduction in fertility, as many couples realized that having fewer children would often lead to improvements in the family’s standard of living.
Both the economic and family planning programs played an important role in moving South Korea from a country with a high fertility rate to one with a low fertility rate.
As a result, the country’s dependent population – the young and the elderly – became smaller relative to the working-age population.
Demographic change initiated economic growth that continued well into the mid-1990s. Productivity increases, combined with an increasing labor force and a gradual reduction in unemployment, drove average annual growth rates in gross domestic product between 6% and 10% over many years.
Losing people every year
Much of this transformation of South Korea from a poor country to a rich country is due to the demographic dividend realized during the country’s fertility decline. But the demographic dividend only works in the short term. Long-term fertility declines are common disastrous for a country’s economy.
With an extremely low fertility rate of 0.78, South Korea is losing population every year and deaths outnumber births. The once vibrant country is on its way to becoming one with many elderly people and fewer workers.
The Korean Bureau of Statistics recently reported that the land lost population in the last three years: it fell by 32,611 people in 2020, 57,118 in 2021 and 123,800 in 2022.
If this trend continues, and if the country does not welcome millions of immigrants, South Korea’s current population of 51 million will will fall below 38 million in the next four or five decades.
And a growing part of society will be over the age of 65. South Korea’s population aged 65 and over made up less than 7% of the population in 2000. nearly 17% of South Koreans are older people.
The elderly population is expected to make up 20% of the country by 2025 and could reach an unprecedented and astonishingly high 46% by 2067. South Korea’s working-age population will then be smaller than the over-65 population.
In an effort to avert a demographic nightmare, the South Korean government is doing just that provide financial incentives for couples to have children and increases the monthly allowance for parents. President Yoon Suk Yeol too established a new government team to establish policies to increase the birth rate.
But to date, programs to raise the low fertility rate have had little effect. The South Korean government has been doing this since 2006 spent more than $200 billion in programs to increase the birth rate, with virtually no impact.
Opening the hatch
The South Korean fertility rate has not increased in the past 16 years. On the contrary, it has continued to fall. This is because of what demographers call the “low fertility fall.”
The principle, established by demographers in the early 2000s, states that once a country’s fertility rate falls below 1.5 or 1.4, it is difficult – if not impossible – to raise it significantly.
South Korea, along with many other countries – including France, Australia and Russia – has developed policies to encourage fertility increases, but with little to no success.
Elderly South Koreans have now overtaken their youthful counterparts by part of the country’s workforce. Photo: Agencies
The only real way for South Korea to turn this around is to rely heavily on immigration.
are migrants usually young and productive and usually have more children than the native population. But South Korea has one very restrictive immigration policy with no opportunity for immigrants to become citizens or permanent residents unless they marry South Koreans.
Indeed, the foreign-born population was just over 1.6 million in 2022, which is around 3.1% of the population. The US, on the other hand, has always relied on immigration to bolster its workforce, with foreign-born residents now consisting of more than 14% of the population.
For immigration to offset South Korea’s declining fertility rate, the number of foreign workers would likely need to increase nearly tenfold.
Without it, South Korea’s demographic fate will see the country continue to lose population every year, becoming one of the oldest – if not the oldest – country in the world.