Why South Korean Women Don’t Want To Have Children?

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On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Yejin was cooking lunch for her friends at her home where she lives alone just outside of Seoul, and she’s happily single.

As they were eating, one of them showed her phone with an old and popular dinosaur meme that said, “Be careful, don’t let yourself go extinct like us.”

All the women laughed.

The 30-year-old television producer, Yejin, said, “It’s funny but dark because we know that we can contribute to our own extinction.”

She and her friends have no plans to have children. They are part of a growing community of women who don’t want to have children.

South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world, and it continues to drop, setting new records year after year.

Numbers released on Wednesday show another 8% drop in 2023, down to 0.7.

For a population to remain stable, the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime is around 2:1.

If things continue like this, Korea’s population is expected to halve by the year 2100.

A ‘national emergency’

Around the world, birth rates in developed countries have been declining, but none have fallen as much as in South Korea.

In 50 years, the number of working-age people will have halved, those eligible for compulsory military service will have decreased by 58%, and almost half of the country’s population will be over 65.

This will impact the country’s economy, pension system, and security, prompting politicians to declare it a “national emergency.”

For almost 20 years, successive governments have been investing money in addressing this issue. Currently, they have allocated 379.8 trillion KRW ($286 billion; £226 billion) to solve it.

They offer financial incentives to couples with children, including monthly allowances, subsidies for housing, and free taxis. They even cover hospital bills and IVF treatments, but only for married individuals.

However, these incentives have not been effective, leading policymakers to consider more “creative” solutions, such as hiring nannies from Southeast Asia and paying them less than the minimum wage. They also stopped men with three children before the age of 30 from serving in the military.

Even with all these measures, critics argue that policymakers are not listening to young people, especially women, to understand their needs. In the past year, there have been efforts to engage with women across the country to explore why they don’t want to have children.

When Yejin decided to live alone in her mid-20s, she went against societal norms. In Korea, single living is considered a temporary phase in a person’s life.

Five years ago, she made the decision not to marry or have children.

She mentioned, “It’s hard to find a better man to date in Korea, someone who will share housework and child-rearing equally. And women with children alone face judgment.”

In 2022, only 2% of children born in South Korea were born out of wedlock.

‘A perpetual cycle of work’

Instead, Yejin has chosen to focus on her career in television, which she says doesn’t allow her enough time to raise children. Korean work hours are notoriously long.

Yejin works from 9 am to 6 pm (what Koreans call 9-5), but she often doesn’t leave the office until 8 pm, with overtime on top of that. By the time she gets home, the only time she has is to clean the house or exercise before going to sleep.

She said, “I love my job; it gives me fulfillment, but working in Korea is hard. You’re in a continuous cycle of work.”

Yejin also feels pressured to study to improve herself for work. “Koreans have this mindset that if you don’t continuously strive for self-improvement, you’ll be left behind and become a failure. That fear drives us to work doubly hard.”

On weekends, she gets an IV drip to have enough energy to start the workweek.

She also shares the same fear as other women in this story that if she takes time off to have children, she might not have the opportunity to return to work.

She said, “Companies put pressure on us that when we have children, we must leave our work.” This is something Yejin has seen happen to her sister and two of her favorite news presenters.

‘I know too much’

A 28-year-old woman who worked in HR said she witnessed situations where people were forced to leave their jobs or were denied promotions after taking maternity leave. This was enough to convince her not to have children.

In Korea, both men and women are entitled to one year of leave during the first eight years of their child’s life. However, in 2022, only 7% of new fathers used some of their leave, compared to 70% of new mothers.

Korean women are the most educated among OECD countries, but they also have the worst gender pay gap, and many women are unemployed compared to men.

Researchers argue that this reflects the choices women have: either have a family or pursue their career. However, more of them are choosing to prioritize their careers.

Stella Shin teaches English to five-year-olds at an afterschool club.

She says, “Look at these children; they’re so cute.” But Stella has no children of her own at 39, and she says it’s not intentional.

She’s been married for six years, and both she and her husband wanted to have children, but they were busy with work and enjoyed their lives until time passed them by. Now, she accepts that the way she’s living makes having children “impossible.”

“Moms need to resign from work to take care of their children full time for the first two years, and it would depress me. I love my career and taking care of myself.”

In her spare time, Stella attends K-pop dance classes with a group of older women.

The expectation that women take two to three years off work when they have children is common. When I asked Stella if she could share that leave with her husband, she gave me a skeptical look, as if to say, “You don’t know your people?”

She said, “It’s like when I asked him to wash the dishes, and he always messes up a little. I can’t trust him.”

Even if she wanted to give up work or balance family and work, she couldn’t do it because the cost of housing is too high, she added.

More than half of the Korean population lives in or around the capital, Seoul, where most opportunities are, putting significant pressure on apartments and resources.

Stella and her husband say that gradually, life pushed them further away from the capital into neighboring provinces, and they still can’t afford to buy their own place.

Seoul’s birth rate has dropped to 0.59, the lowest in the country.

In addition to housing, the cost of private education looks daunting to potential parents.

From the age of four, children attend many expensive extracurricular classes, from math and English to music and Taekwondo.

This practice is so widespread that if you say your child won’t participate, it’s as if you want your child to fail because Korea is extremely competitive. Therefore, it is the most expensive country to raise children.

A 2022 study showed that 2% of parents did not pay for private lessons, while 94% cited financial issues.

As a teacher at one of these cram schools, Stella is well aware of this problem. She sees parents spending up to £700 ($890) per month on one child. Many of these parents cannot afford it.

She said, “But without these classes, the children will fall behind. When I’m around these kids, I want to have children, but I already know too much.”

For some, the issue of expensive private lessons has deeper implications beyond just money.

“Minji” wants to share her story but not publicly because she doesn’t want her parents to know that she won’t have children; “they would be shocked and disappointed.” She lives with her husband.

Minji said she wasn’t happy throughout her childhood and 20s.

“I spent my whole life studying.” First, it was to get into a better university, then for her civil servant exams, and then so she could get her first job at 28.

She recalls staying in class late at night as a child, cramming math she hated, and not knowing how to fulfill her dream of becoming an artist.

She said, “I was competing constantly, not to achieve my dreams, but just to live a mediocre life. It was so draining.”

At 32, Minji is finally free and enjoying life. She likes to travel and is learning to dive.

But what worries her more is that she doesn’t want her children to go through the hardship she experienced.

She concluded, “Korea is not a place where children can live happily.”

Her husband would like her to have children, and they have fought over it before, but he has accepted it. She said sometimes she feels weak-minded and thinks, “Why didn’t I have children?” but then she remembers.

Depressing social issues

In the city of Daejon, Jungyeon Chun is in what she calls a “single-parenting marriage.”

After picking up her seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son from school, she walks to nearby playgrounds to pass the time until her husband comes back from work, often not making it home before bedtime.

She said, “I didn’t feel like I made a big decision to have children. I thought I could do it quickly, go back to work.”

But when social and financial issues joined the mix, she realized that she was the only one doing parenting work. Her husband, a trade unionist, didn’t help with childcare or housework.

She said, “I was angry. I read books and thought women are equal, so I couldn’t accept it.”

This is the crux of the matter.

In the past 50 years, South Korea’s economy has grown rapidly, pushing women into higher education and the workforce, and their ambitions have grown, but the roles of wife and mother haven’t kept pace with the economy.

Jungyeon began to notice other mothers too, “I saw that my friend who is a mom is also depressed, and my friend across the street is also depressed, and I saw that it’s a social issue.”

She began to share her experiences online. Her webtoon became a huge success because many women across the country could relate. Now, Jungyeon is the author of three published books.

She said she has moved beyond being angry and regretful. She said, “I just wish I had known the reality of the work that mothers have. The reason women don’t want to have children now is that they have the courage to talk about it.”

But Jungyeon is not happy because women don’t know the wonders of motherhood due to the “tragic situations they are forced into.”

But Minji is happy because “we are the first generation that can choose. Before, it wasn’t a question; we had to have children. So we choose not to have them because we can.”

‘I’ll have 10 if I can’

Back at Yejin’s house, after they finished lunch, her friends helped her pack books and her other belongings.

This is because Yejin is tired of life in Korea and is planning to move to New Zealand. It was just one day when she woke up and realized that nobody was forcing her to stay in Korea.

So she researched countries with the highest rankings for gender equality, and she found New Zealand. She was surprised to learn that it’s a place where men and women are paid equally. So, off she goes!

So, I asked Yejin and her friends what could change their minds, make them want to have children.

Minsung surprised me and said, “I want to have children, I’ll have 10 if I can,” but the 27-year-old told me she’s bisexual and has a female partner.

Same-sex marriage is illegal in South Korea, and unmarried women don’t have the right to use a sperm donor to conceive.

She said, “Hopefully, this will change, and I can have children with someone I love.”

Her friends pointed out that, considering the complicated population situation in Korea, some people who want to be mothers can’t.

But it seems like politicians are starting to acknowledge the complexity of the issue.

This month, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said that throwing money at the problem didn’t work, and South Korea is too competitive.

He said his government will now treat the issue of low birth rates as a “structural problem,” but it’s not clear how they will turn it into policy.

Earlier this month, I spoke to Yejin again from New Zealand, where she has been living for three months.

She was telling me about her new life, friends, and her work in the kitchen of a pub. She said, “My work-life balance has greatly improved.” She can make plans with her friends during the week.

She added, “I feel more respected at work, and people don’t judge me like that.”

“It feels like I don’t want to go home anymore.”

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