The case for fewer ba­bies

The Korea Times - - NATIONAL - Low birthrate may be bad for Korea, but it may be good for you, the planet By Jung Min-ho

Korea’s fall­ing birthrate poses grave chal­lenges for the fu­ture, from a shrink­ing la­bor force to ris­ing health­care costs. There is cer­tainly much to worry about.

But is hav­ing fewer or no ba­bies at all also bad for in­di­vid­ual mem­bers of so­ci­ety? Not re­ally, ac­cord­ing to Ron­ald De­mos Lee, a pro­fes­sor of de­mog­ra­phy and eco­nom­ics at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley.

“The eco­nomic ben­e­fits of a low fer­til­ity rate are less vis­i­ble and largely pri­vate, while the pub­lic costs of it, such as pen­sions and health­care, are all very vis­i­ble so they get much at­ten­tion,” Lee told The Korea Times.

Ac­cord­ing to his 2014 re­search pa­per, “Is Low Fer­til­ity Re­ally a Prob­lem? Pop­u­la­tion Aging, De­pen­dency and Con­sump­tion,” a mod­er­ately low birthrate and pop­u­la­tion de­cline are good for in­di­vid­u­als’ liv­ing stan­dards.

“For fam­i­lies, a lower birthrate makes it eas­ier to in­vest in the health and ed­u­ca­tion of each child, and to spend time with each child,” he says “With a lower birthrate it is eas­ier to save for the fu­ture, in­clud­ing for re­tire­ment. Par­ents can con­sume more them­selves when they do not need to spend so much on their chil­dren.

“For the pub­lic sec­tor, the ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage is lower costs of ed­u­ca­tion if there are fewer chil­dren, and lower costs of so­cial in­fra­struc­ture for the pop­u­la­tion, which is grow­ing more slowly or de­clin­ing.”

Ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Korea, the coun­try’s birthrate — the av­er­age num­ber of chil­dren a woman chooses to have in her life­time — was 1.05 last year, one of the world’s low­est.

Lee thinks the costs of the Korea’s fall­ing birthrate are some­what ex­ag­ger­ated and that the ideal birthrate for the coun­try (2.1 or slightly higher) may dif­fer from the ideal num­ber of chil­dren for its peo­ple based on liv- ing stan­dards.

“I don’t think the low birthrate in Korea is a big prob­lem. The costs are not much greater than the ben­e­fits,” the scholar said.

“In the Sci­ence ar­ti­cle, we found that the to­tal birthrate that would max­i­mize the stan­dard of liv­ing in Korea would be 1.55. While the pres­sure on the pub­lic sec­tor from very low birthrate may be great, there are also savings in the pri­vate sec­tor, in­clud­ing a re­duced need to save and in­vest for the fu­ture la­bor force.”

Also, when the gov­ern­ment and ex­perts talk about the pos­si­ble detri­men­tal con­se­quences of the fall­ing num­ber of chil­dren — say­ing Korea could “dis­ap­pear” by 2750 if the cur­rent birthrate con­tin­ues — they hardly men­tion ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions such as more im­mi­gra­tion and au­to­ma­tion.

“Im­mi­gra­tion can help some­what to re­duce pop­u­la­tion aging and to off­set the de­cline in the size of the la­bor force due to a low birthrate,” Lee says.

“From a strictly eco­nomic point of view, I don’t think that a low birthrate is so im­por­tant. But it is true that our ex­pe­ri­ence with very low birthrate over a long pe­riod is very lim­ited. So far, I would say the eco­nomic ex­pe­ri­ence in Ja­pan has been quite pos­i­tive.”

Schol­ars also point out that low birthrates are de­vel­oped coun­tries’ prob­lem, be­cause the pop­u­la­tion is rapidly in­creas­ing else­where.

The global pop­u­la­tion is 7.6 bil­lion up from only 3 bil­lion in 1960, and is pro­jected to reach 8.5 bil­lion by 2030.

For this rea­son, some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to have fewer — not more — chil­dren to save the planet.


Many young Kore­ans see their coun­try’s low birthrate as the gov­ern­ment’s prob­lem, not their own. Some schol­ars agree.

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