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How to avoid South Korea’s demographic disaster

South Korea has undergone the most rapid fertility decline in recorded human history. Credit: Getty

December 1, 2023 - 1:00pm

The Children of Men by PD James is one of the great dystopian novels. Set in a near future where no child has been born for 25 years, it’s a chilling depiction of a world without purpose.

It deserves to be set alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World — not least because, unlike the Orwell and Huxley nightmares, it is slowly coming true.

Birth rates have been dropping across the developed world — and in many lower income countries too. Of course, we’re still some way from “Year Omega” i.e. the fictional point at which the global birth rate hits zero. Also in contrast to James’s novel, the primary cause of the real world decline in births is not mass infertility, but societal choice.

However, that is precisely what should terrify us about our current situation: despite having the option to reverse or at least halt the decline, we’re not taking it. Just when it seems we’ve hit the procreative bedrock, we tunnel deeper towards demographic calamity.

In this respect, South Korea is the canary in the coal mine. The average number of children per woman (i.e. the total fertility rate or TFR) is the lowest in the world at just 0.8. Except that it’s just got worse — the latest figures show a further decline to 0.7.

To put that into context, the TFR required to maintain the population is 2.1. This means that South Koreans are only having a third of the children they need to replace each generation.

The South Korean population is projected to decline from 51 million to roughly half that by the end of this century. The decline of the working age population will be even steeper and that of the school-age and student population nothing short of apocalyptic. Maternity wards, nurseries, schools and universities will empty out and close — leaving behind a nation of the middle-aged and elderly.

We in the West would do well to pay close attention — because our own TFRs are also on the slide. At the very least, we need to work out why the situation in South Korea is so dire (so that we can move in the opposite direction).

There are many theories, but what stands out is the sheer weight of the burdens placed on South Korean parents. Above all, there’s the insanely competitive education system that effectively compels families to shell out for expensive out-of-school tuition. Add to that the country’s long-hours work culture and Koreans are left with neither the money nor the time to enjoy family life.

It’s also the case that half the country’s population is squeezed into the capital Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area, which pushes up property prices. Thus Korean families are denied living space too.

Altogether, it’s a fatal combination — and though the UK situation may not be as extreme, the parallels are obvious. Our student loan system, London-centric economy and ruinous rent levels are also putting intolerable burdens on young adults.

If we want to avoid South Korea’s demographic fate, then we must lighten the load on parents (and potential parents). Having children is hard enough as it is.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago

I’m not sure I buy the deterministic focus on property prices as a reason why young people don’t seem to want to become parents. My grandfather was one of 11 children born with into a tiny four room cottage, initially rented from the Land Commission. His parents toiled literally from dawn to dusk. If people want to have children, they will find a way. If, psychologically, they are children themselves, without the qualities required to be good parents – including selflessness, empathy. and the ability to maintain relationships through challenges – then they won’t. A lot of young people today boast of being “child free”, as if children were germs. I don’t think this is anything to do with the price of property or education.

Last edited 7 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

A good start would be to constantly deliver this message to every 15 year old girl in the country: you have 65 years of life ahead of you but only 15 to have a baby. Don’t waste time! Careers can wait. Find a man you love and trust, get married and get down to business. If you don’t you will miss the boat and grow old childless.
This is obviously the exact opposite of the messaging our culture currently gives out to girls.
I don’t think girls have the slightest idea of how hard it is to have kids once you are past 30 and how unlikely it is after 35.
The government’s fabled Nudge Unit should be set the task of spreading this most natural of messages until it is drilled into the consciousness of all young women – get married and start a family in your twenties.
Don’t worry about the young men. If the girls decide that marriage and kids are their priority and act accordingly (not “giving it away”), the boys that fancy them will fall in line. Of course we should be preparing our young men to be capable and willing to provide for a family. The method for doing this is shame – “you’re not a man if you don’t have a family”. That’s the way it has been done for millennia.
The government should follow up by making social housing the exclusive preserve of young married couples and young families. And supporting them in every way possible.

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt M
Jason Sanders
Jason Sanders
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

My wife had our 3 kids at 33, 35 and 38. From our perspective it’s much easier to have kids in your 30s than in your teens but each to their own I guess

David Morley
David Morley
7 months ago
Reply to  Jason Sanders

You were quite lucky though. Some would struggle to have three kids at that age.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Jason Sanders

I said it was hard after 30, not impossible. My wife struggled and we had several unsuccessful rounds of IVF. We eventually adopted a lovely baby girl and so it all worked out but the moral is, the longer you leave it the more tricky it gets.

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Find a man you love and trust“? That might be the problem.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Why is that hard?

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Because most men aren’t the men that women want them to be (according to women anyway).

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

The government should follow up by making social housing the exclusive preserve of young married couples and young families“. What about single mothers? How would they be housed?

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Ideally in secure accommodation with childcare services available. But council housing should not be for problem cases or immigrants, they should be, as originally intended, for married, working class families from the local area.

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

I can’t help feeling the whole “marriage” thing has outlived its usefulness.

David Morley
David Morley
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

My grandfather was one of 11 children born with into a tiny four room cottage

I’m guessing that was pre pill. And other life options were pretty limited. Like it or not that is not now the situation. Women want to have children, but we still have to work to make the actuality of having children attractive.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
7 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Indeed. The most consequential invention in human history, as Mary Harrington of these pages never ceases to point out. Trouble is, it looks like the same invention will now make humans history.

David Morley
David Morley
7 months ago

The pill makes it possible to have children when it looks like a good time to do so. Unfortunately our societies have made the years of peak fertility not look like a good time in all other respects.

Any effective policy will have to change that, incentivising women to have children in their 20s – or at least removing the disincentives to do so.

AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago

What demographic disaster? If the global population drops to 4 billion or so by the end of the century many concerns about running out of resources or polluting the environment will be eased enormously. Perhaps 4 billion can live well rather than 8 billion and some extreme poverty?
There will undoubtedly be novel problems (like care for the elderly or inefficient school sizes) but we are on the edge of technical solutions which will need fewer people to deliver.
It’s not a disaster, it’s an opportunity.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I agree with you that there are opportunities from a drastically reduced population but that misses the key point that a lot of women (and men) who want kids aren’t having them. Surely that is the real problem not the macro issues that may well turn out to be beneficial.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

…a nice idea AC, but the problem is that’s not how demography works. A stable lower total population would still need a replacement rate of at least 2.1 and probably higher, because the population will be older. The Hans Rosling TED talks are an interesting introduction to the problem of population collapse.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Of course a truism there ACH. With the younger relocating from likes of Africa to the societies with an unsustainable demographic Gaia will self-correct itself.
But for some this rebalancing will have consequences and be deemed a disaster. In the broad sweep of history though it has an inevitability about it one suspects that will override how we currently see the World.

Dark Horse
Dark Horse
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Yes more space for fewer people should lead to much more affordable housing and smaller class sizes with each child getting more attention.
With increasing automation we will need fewer workers and with a smaller population we will need fewer goods.
If handled properly smaller populations could be a very positive thing.
Food production is now very efficient so more quality healthy affordable food at lower prices.
If the current batch of 50 to 60 year olds can be nudged into healthier behaviours and remain active and productive for longer so much the better.
As to who will look after all the elderly we can import temporary guest workers to do that and send them home when no longer needed just as the Gulf States do.
No reason why immigration has to be permanent.

Jonathan Rowe
Jonathan Rowe
6 months ago
Reply to  Dark Horse

“smaller class sizes with each child getting more attention”

Maybe in private schools. In state schools, the squeeze on public funding from a shrinking tax base will mean fewer schools with fewer teachers, not a utopia where the same number of teachers teach fewer pupils

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
7 months ago

“because, unlike the Orwell and Huxley nightmares, it is slowly coming true.”

Thank heaven they aren’t coming true. Every time I decide against speaking up in the unconscious bias training, for fear of job loss, I comfort myself with my soma screen.

I had been thinking something might be amiss.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

At least you don’t face a cage full of hungry rats yet.

Last edited 7 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
7 months ago

Where is the money to be made in encouraging youngsters to have children? Have we got here by, primarily, focusing on money as the goal? Money has to be earned but for the past two generations “money” has been very easy to come by and, hence, it has become too easy to then spend.
When those easily sold items such as holidays, clothes, phones, expensive nights out are so attractive who is strong enough to do without? Especially when advertising and peer pressure is so great?
The price of accommodation is madly high, but who has won? The Banks and money people. Not those of us sitting on one main residence, however notionally valuable that is. Just a really few people who have lots of assets, oh and those that control the money.
Those that like to make serious money say that a reduction in population replacement is not a problem, just import workers. But this only then; 1 – kicks the ball down the road and 2 – increases the pressure on those already struggling in any country.
My parents had one debt in their life, a small mortgage, paid off well before retirement. No car loans, no TV on the never never, no credit card debt. One thing very different (and I had a conversation about this with my son and DinL recently) we had very little to buy. So; little to no peer pressure to have things. Shopping in town happened once or twice a year, no online shopping as a dopamine hit while sitting on the sofa!
So, maybe, just maybe, a primary reason for the collapse in population replacement in the developed world is down to such incredibly effective marketing on all that “stuff” we all “must have”.
Anyway, rant over, thanks for reading.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

Nation states talk a big game about encouraging child birth, but are we really doing much of anything? In Hungary, women with four children or more are exempted for life from paying income tax. Families are also extended interest free loans. Maybe we could give families interest free mortgages? I don’t think anyone is really doing much of anything to support young families.

Managed immigration should be part of the solution as well. I get the sense that most people here oppose all immigration, but immigration has been crucial to the economic success of North America.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Selective immigration is key.
At one time, the selection was “natural”. Those who came to America were generally poor, but also resourceful and determined, and they came from cultures with a similar moral framework (they were Christians of one form or another).
Now international travel is much cheaper and easier, and immigrants are attracted by the prospect of a welfare state (even in America), not just the opportunity to work hard and do well.
It is of course worse in Europe, which is easier to reach from many very poor countries, and has more generous welfare states.
Still, it wouldn’t be too difficult to impose selective immigration. It just requires political will.
As it is, we risk replacing citizens who are mostly civilised and relatively intelligent with an assortment of low-IQ criminals and benefit-seekers from countries rife with violence and corruption.
Which is not to deny that many immigrants make positive contributions, and integrate well. It’s just that we should insist they all do.

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
7 months ago

Japan is another case of severe population decline, with strictly limited immigration. Motherhood is a severe burden in Japan, with even competitive Bento lunch boxes to prepare for school and zero male help in the household. And here is the shocker: fifty percent of young Japanese women do not like sex.

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago

If the UK were to be as crowded as Japan, there’d be a civil war. Its population is about 2 million shy of it’s peak, 20 years ago. A desperately needed decline.

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago

The last line contains an interesting statistic. Do you have a reference for it?

j watson
j watson
7 months ago

Economic reasons play some role in the declining TFR in UK and other western societies. Female emancipation and freedom another. We can do something about the former but whilst some might welcome a form of institutionalised ‘Gilead’ to tackle the latter we are not the Taliban.
Furthermore even if we changed the TFR today it’d take 20-30years to change our fundamental demographics.
So we need to better prepare for an aging population and get our heads round it quickly. That includes extending effective working life and ensuring the Young are not further disadvantaged such that we create real inter-generational conflict. We need to prepare out Homes and Towns for this demographic too. And we need managed immigration and assimilation.
Otherwise we sit on the beach like King Canute as the tide rolls over us.

Harry Child
Harry Child
7 months ago

Yet another panicky article on population statistics, one of many in the media. Years ago a survey was carried out to see what size population the UK should have to become self sufficient in food production – about 40 million. Today we have over 65million.
The article does not take into account the improvement in automation or the growth of AI.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

Concur we can sometimes over ‘catastrophise’.
There is a probable limit to how much AI and automation can do to help elderly with care needs. As we currently know without significant legal migration the care sector collapses. It’s not clear AI coming to the rescue here v quickly and the demographic growing every year. I certainly hope you are right.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Does it – the care sector – really collapse though ? And is that something we should just sit back and accept ?
I have a friend who recently told me that the annual care cost for his elderly mother was around £80K. Yes, this is higher end, but that feels almost an order of magnitude too high. Why does this care (and child care) cost so much ? This strongly suggests to me that we simply aren’t doing it efficiently and that’s it’s probably yet another area where excessive government regulation has raised costs and discouraged innovation.
There have got to be both better and lower cost ways to manage care for the elderly than what we’re doing today.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

He’s done well if it was just £80k PB. It will depend to some degree on how much specific nursing care, as opposed to basic care, needed, and of course any dementia or significant immobility increases the staff input needed. But if you think about it’s c£1.5k a wk. If you think about cost of a decent Hotel Full Board for a week and then add in help with eating, drinking, toileting and potential specific health needs 24/7 it’s not outlandish. And most Providers remain Private sector so you have an investment return to deliver too. The biggest cost will be staffing and you have, as I noted, to cover 24/7. Someone needs hoisting or lifting to wash or toilet it’s two staff, and most Care Homes will have min 30 rooms. So you can see the rota cover generates alot of cost. Home care of course might avoid the fixed asset costs but it’s not a great deal cheaper as less efficient due to travel time. Plus has additional things like doing the persons shopping, cooking etc.
Nonetheless I’m sure there are some efficiencies poss as there always are. Were it that easy though to make a Return the market would be providing plenty of capacity, and it isn’t. Something is fundamentally wrong and we keep ducking it as a Nation.
The reliance on immigrant workforce of course partly because they can be paid a little less – that could be corrected but not clear even then we’ve sufficient people willing to do this work, of the required aptitude and attitude, for the money paid. And as you flag it’s expensive already before anyone increases the salaries.

Gerard A
Gerard A
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

“and the demographic growing every year”
Your argument that we need to procreate at a faster rate simply increases the number of future dependent elderly, unless there is a fall in life expectancy.

Gerard A
Gerard A
7 months ago

The author should have stated his reasons why population decline is bad news. Without that the article is just ramblings of the type you can hear down the pub. I expect better from Unherd

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Gerard A

Population decline is less the issue. It’s the demographic within and the proportion of healthy, wealth generating young vs less economically active, more dependent elderly.
Saying population decline isn’t so bad without recognising the issue is much more complicated than that is indeed the ramblings of the simpleton down the pub.

Gerard A
Gerard A
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Saying population decline is bad without recognising the issue is much more complicated than that is indeed the ramblings of the simpleton down the pub.

Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
7 months ago

To what extent is the decline in traditional religious observance correlated? I believe that the decline in religious participation in industrialized countries is contributing.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
7 months ago

I can’t speak to the reality of “traditional religious observance” in Europe, but the old joke was that Catholics churned out the most children (every sperm is sacred, etc).
And yet we see very low birth rates in countries like Italy and Spain that (in my mind, at least) are still much more traditionally religious than the UK.