The case for fewer babies
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.