In South Korea the colliding intersection between tradition and demographics is probably at its most extreme – see Economist article “I don’t“. However the same kinds of effects are being seen all over the developed world, and increasingly in parts of the underdeveloped world.
The proportion of single people in Seoul more than doubled between 1990 and 2010, and they now account for 16% of households. Four in ten South Korean adults are unmarried, the highest share among the 34 OECD countries. In Seoul over a third of women with degrees are single.
One reason is that wedding expenses, mostly met by the groom and often including the couple’s first home, have become prohibitive for many. Another is that Korean families used to be so desperate to have sons that in the 1980s they aborted lots of daughters. Now one in seven men of marriageable age lacks a potential partner.
Also, some women want to “marry up”, which is harder now that so many women have degrees and good jobs. Many others are no longer prepared to play the role of a traditional wife. The mean age at which women marry has risen from 25 in 1995 to 30 today.
Social expectations have yet to catch up.
The birth selection is an issue that pops up all over various countries because of decisions made by parents back in the 1980s. But the really strong factor is other social expectations.
Some snipe that these women’s “marriage strike” is selfish and unpatriotic, by which they mean that they would like women to carry on shouldering nearly all the burden of housework, child care and looking after ageing in-laws. Even otherwise modern-minded online men’s clubs, such as “I Love Soccer”, have taken to deriding feminists and calling women’s forums childish. Birth rates in most rich countries have plummeted in recent decades (see article)—but further and faster in South Korea than almost anywhere else.
Successive governments have regarded the promotion of traditional marriage as a way to boost procreation, says Kwonkim Hyun-young, a lecturer in gender studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. This does not seem to work. Granted, the stigma against cohabitation remains strong: only 0.2% of Korean households consist of unwed couples, compared with 10% in Britain and 19% in Sweden. But rather than getting hitched, many women remain single. And many married couples are having only one child: the number of children beyond a first fell by 37% between 2010 and 2013. So long as South Korean wives and mothers are expected to behave like their mothers did in the 1960s, many women will opt to fly solo instead.
As a leader in the Economist points out, looking across all countries, what helps is providing the economic way for encouraging women to have children..
The thing that seems to boost fertility most is subsidised child care. By cutting the cost of combining work and motherhood, this encourages both. Subsidised nurseries were pioneered in France, a country that has worried about national vigour ever since it was thrashed in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. It has been rewarded with one of the highest fertility rates in Europe. Cheap nurseries have also helped boost Quebec’s birth rate from one of the lowest of all Canadian provinces to one of the highest.
Few rich countries will ever go back to a fertility rate of 2.1, the magic number which means that the population remains stable. And persuading women in southern Europe or East Asia to have more sprogs will be especially hard. Birth rates there have fallen so far and so fast that they may never bounce back. Countries like South Korea are stuck in a cultural bind: women fought their way into university and good jobs, but family life is far less egalitarian (see article). Many women face a stark choice between an interesting career or a life making bulgogi and tempura.
Yet a culture can change, and the state can nudge it. Creating lots of good, subsidised nurseries would signal that women can keep pursuing a career, if they want to, even after having children. That would be good for women, good for productivity and good for the public coffers.
I can see exactly the same kinds of things happened here as are happening in Seoul. The effects are leavened more by our looser culture and high immigration.
Unlike the world I grew up in during the 1960s, women now make up close to half of our workforce – albeit still extremely underpaid in many areas. But exactly the same life choices for women that are laid so starkly bare in South Korea also apply to one degree or another here.
As Stephanie pointed out in June, even having children is actively frowned upon by our rather short-sighted employers. Women are effectively given a choice by the expectations of their employers to make a choice between having a career or spending some years raising children. Even if they have a partner willing to share the work to raise kids, the stereotypes land the work and the role squarely on women. They effectively carry far more of all of the costs (and risks) of having children.
It is hardly surprising that given a choice between having a career that they are involved with and trained for, and having children – they are increasingly picking the career. By any rational economic measure that is the correct choice. And in our modern world, increasingly economics is overriding biology.
But even without this, increasingly just being a parent is unaffordable. Parent(s) need to have two steady incomes to even have a place to live, especially in Auckland. To buy a property for raising children requires reasonably low debt levels and a deposit. But something like a third of our younger adults go through tertiary institutions and pick up large student debts that they start paying off as they start their careers, usually on lower wages than they will receive later in their career. So they can’t accumulate large deposits and face the choice of having children when they can’t afford it, or have children later when their bodies in all respects are less able to handle conception, childbirth, and child-rearing.
This was pointed out in a survey of tertiary students – see “Cost of student debt: no kids“. See also an eloquent opinion piece by Rachel Smalley “Student loans a kick in the teeth to whole generation“.
That is also exactly the message that you get when you talk to people in their 30s who haven’t had children, have finally started making progress on paying off student debt, and who are having problems saving for deposit. They’re looking at the biological clock and their finances and deciding that they don’t have time to have kids. They are literally deciding between kids or career because of the costs.
Labour was starting to deal with this issue in their last term, both through Working For Families, and more importantly with state driven enhancements for Early Childhood Education. These were both designed to reduce the choice between career and children for parents, especially women.
It is hardly surprising that the numbers of two parent families has visibly diminished during my lifetime under a economic onslaught that makes it ever harder to provide a secure environment for raising children. Perhaps if National thought more deeply about what is required to support families that they seem to yearn for, they’d have more of them…