FOCUS Woes Deepen as Population Reversal Begins

Due to declining fertility rates and rising life expectancy, Korea’s population structure is undergoing rapid changes, more so than any other country in the world. The decrease in the nation’s total population is leading to a drastic demographic transition which is characterized by a shrinking labor force and rising dependency ratio, posing a serious problem for Korean society.

Rising life expectancy is good news, but falling birth rates and the growing trend to avoid marriage portend a gloomy future with an increasing burden of supporting the elderly population.

Traditionally, Koreans regarded having many children as one of the five blessings. The expectation that their children would support them in old age was greater than the burden of child-rearing and having many offspring was thought to bring prosperity to the family.

Demographic Changes and Government Policies
From 1955, shortly after the end of the Korean War, the nation experienced a surge in the birth rate, leading to the so-called baby boom. Statistics show that in 1960, the total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of children born to a woman during her childbearing years of 15 to 49, reached 6.0. But due to the dire state of the economy and a food shortage, people lived in destitution and many starved to death during the spring lean season. To tackle the problem, the government introduced a population control program in 1962 as a national policy priority by implementing extensive family planning measures. This proved to be immensely effective and eventually the public came to regard having just two children as a virtue. By 1983, the TFR had dropped to the population replacement level of 2.1 (the fertility rate at which the population remains unchanged from generation to generation, 2.1 children per woman at present after factoring in early deaths).
As the TFR reached the replacement level, demographers debated whether the family planning projects should be continued. Opinion was divided. Some argued that the population control program was no longer necessary since the population had been successfully reduced, while others contended that if it was discontinued, the TFR could spring back up again. The fertility rate did, in fact, show a slight increase, but while the government remained undecided due to future unpredictability, the country was hit by the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which led to a significant downward trend in fertility. By 2005, the TFR had dipped to 1.03, an unprecedented level and a shocking forewarning that the Korean population will be reduced by half in the future.

Low Fertility and Aging Population
Korea is a small country with an overflowing population. It is the third most densely populated country in the world after Bangladesh and Taiwan. Then why is a low birth rate a problem?
Economic development, improvement in living stan dards, and advances in medicine have significantly boosted the average life expectancy of Koreans in recent decades. In 1970, the average life span of Koreans was 58.7 years for men and 65.6 years for women. It was the custom then to hold a big birthday party for one's parents when they turned 60. But in 2015, the average life expectancy of Koreans was 79.0 years for men and 85.2 years for women, an increase of roughly 20 years, and it will continue to rise in the years ahead. Now, instead of the big 60, people hold big celebrations for the 80th birthday. As of 2015, there were 3,159 Koreans aged 100 or older; it seems the country is fast approaching the “centenarian age.” The average life expectancy of Korean men is 1.1 years higher than the OECD average and that of Korean women 1.9 years higher.
The youth population refers to those below 15, the age at which economic activity is legally possible, while the elderly population is defined as people over 65, generally considered the full retirement age. The two age groups depend on the nation’s wealth created by the economically active population between 15 and 65. The child dependency ratio is the percentage of the child population divided by the economically active population, an indicator of the number of children supported by one working-age person. Similarly, the aged dependency ratio is the percentage of the elderly population divided by the economically active population, which indicates the number of elderly people per workingage person. A high child dependency ratio means that the economically active population will increase in the future, while a high aged dependency ratio suggests an increase in the population requiring economic support. As of 2015, Korea’s child dependency ratio was estimated at 18.8 and aged dependency ratio 17.5. Statistics Korea has forecast, however, that the two figures will be reversed in 2017 and that by 2065, the child dependency ratio will remain virtually unchanged at 20.0 while the aged dependency ratio will soar to 88.6.
Korea’s population structure has been represented by a stable pyramid with a large youth population at the base supporting the elderly population that tapers toward the top, but it is gradually shifting to an inverted pyramid. The reversal is not a problem that appeared overnight, but a prediction that is starting to become a reality. This year marks the turning point, and hence there has been a lot of media coverage recently about the beginning of the population reversal and the population cliff. As of 2015, the economically productive population was 37.44 million; this is expected to drop sharply to 20.62 million by 2065, or 55.5 percent of the current number. The nation’s population structure is undergoing rapid changes in a very short period of time, posing a great challenge in establishing policies to effectively address the issues of low fertility and population aging that developed countries in the West are already experiencing.

In 2065, the elderly are expected to account for 42.5 percent of the total population and the young for only 9.6 percent. By that time, economic support for the elderly will become a grave social problem and a critical national policy task.

The year 2017 marks the beginning of the population reversal in Korea. Active discussions are under way to establish policies that take into account sociocultural changes beyond promoting childbirth and welfare for the elderly.

Economic and Sociocultural Approaches
Up until 1970, over one million babies were born each year in Korea, but the number has been falling ever since. In 2015, the number of newborns totaled 438,400. By 2029, the number of births and deaths is expected to be roughly the same at 410,000; from 2031, deaths will outnumber births and the Korean population will start to decrease. In 2065, the elderly are expected to account for 42.5 percent of the total population and the young only 9.6 percent. By this time, economic support for the elderly will become a grave social problem and a critical national policy task. The current 15-year-olds who are growing up in an era of rapidly changing perceptions about marriage and childbirth will be joining the aging population then. Back in the industrialization era, it may have been possible to reduce the birth rate with campaigns like “Have just two children and raise them well.” Such an approach is no longer viable in bringing the birth rate back up again.
Education and industry in Korea have developed in line with the current population, and yet unemployment is rising due to a lack of jobs. As the number of births continues to fall, educational facilities will become redundant, leading to a loss of related jobs. Some elementary schools have already been forced to shut down due to a lack of students and universities are likely to face the same problem in the near future. A shrinking population means dwindling purchasing power and economic stagnation. Businesses will not find it easy to maintain their current manpower, let alone hire new recruits, causing serious repercussions for economic activity and structure. The growing elderly population will exacerbate the problem.
Today’s youths who are reluctant to have children will grow old someday. Care for them after retirement will fall on the government, or more specifically, taxes collected from the working-age population.

Not having children may be an individual choice, but from the perspective of state administration, it is a form of egoism because in old age, childless people are supported by taxes paid by other people’s children. In addition, a decrease in the economically active population will result in declining tax revenues, which means the government will have to impose heavier taxes on the shrinking workforce. This is likely to spawn conflict between the young and the old. As a buffer measure, the government will have to resort to immigrants from developing countries to fill the labor shortage.
From a demographer’s perspective, the future looks bleak. But unlike animals, humans cannot live on food alone; they create civilization and culture, and ponder not just economic issues, but the meaning of life as well. Demographic shifts, or changes in population structure, lead to changes in human culture. In Chinese characters, the word "population" literally means “a person’s mouth." It implies that people engage in economic activity so that they can eat and live well. The mouth is the opening through which food enters the body and words are spoken. If food is the economy, then language is culture. To address the demographic challenges of the future, the nation needs policies taking into account sociocultural changes as well as the economy.

Lee Seung-wook Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Public Health, Seoul National University


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