South Korea broke its own record for the world’s lowest total fertility rate last year, census data showed on Wednesday, and experts project it will drop even further this year, adding to concerns about the country’s shrinking and aging population.
After declining steadily from 4.53 in 1970, the first year the government started compiling such data, the total fertility rate began to sink more quickly in the 2000s during the financial crises, dropping below 1.0 in 2018 as housing, child care and education costs rose, jobs became scarcer and young people grew more anxious about their future.
The fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman during her reproductive years — declined for the sixth straight year to 0.81 in 2021, according to Statistics Korea, the national statistics agency. Experts said it might drop below 0.8 this year, as rising housing prices further discourage people from having children.
By comparison, the fertility rate was 1.66 in the United States and 1.37 in Japan. A fertility rate of 2.1 is needed for a population to remain the same size without migration.
“How difficult must people find it to get married, give birth and raise children for this number to be so low?” said Lee Samsik, a professor of policy at Hanyang University in Seoul. “If we take this as a compressed measure of basic life, it’s a troublesome figure.”
The implications of the low fertility rate are already being felt across South Korean society. The population has shrunk in the past two years. Schools have faced shortages of students, the military has expanded eligibility requirements for conscripts, and the dwindling number of working-age people imperils the pensions of retirees.
Although the government has long known of the country’s demographic crisis, policy experts say it has failed to sufficiently address it. Professor Lee said the government should invest significantly more resources into child care, expand job opportunities for young adults, make housing more accessible and encourage immigration.
The prospect of a shrinking work force has put South Korea at the forefront of developing robots and artificial intelligence for the workplace. The Justice Ministry has also said that it would create a bureau to foster immigration in a country that historically has not had much of it.
But without a sweeping intervention, South Korea might see a serious labor shortage by the mid-2030s, and within three or four generations, the population could decline drastically, according to Lee Sang-lim, a demographer with the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
“Life isn’t going well for a lot of young people,” he said. “For many, it’s natural not to have kids or marry at all.”