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.