A country’s fertility rate, which shows the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime, fell to 0.81 in 2021, down 0.03% from the previous year, according to the Korea National Statistics Office.

To put this in perspective, the birth rate in 2021 was 1.6 in the United States and 1.3 in Japan, which also had the lowest rate on record last year. In some African countries, where the birth rate is the highest in the world, this indicator is 5-6.

To maintain a stable population, countries need a fertility rate of 2.1 – anything higher indicates population growth.

South Korea’s birth rate has been falling since 2015, and in 2020 the country recorded more deaths than births for the first time – meaning the population has shrunk in what has been called a “population death cross”.

And as the birth rate declines, South Korean women are also having children at a later age. The average age of women who gave birth in 2021 was 33.4 years – 0.2 years more than the previous year, according to the statistics office.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s population is also aging, pointing to a demographic decline that experts fear will leave the country with too few working-age people to support its growing elderly population – both through taxes and filling jobs in areas such as health care and home care.

As of last November, 16.8% of South Koreans were over 65, while only 11.8% were 14 or younger.

This proportion of older Koreans is growing rapidly, increasing by more than 5% from 2020 to 2021, according to census data. At the same time, the working-age population — people aged 15 to 64 — shrank by 0.9% between 2020 and 2021.

South Korea and Japan share similar reasons for declining birth rates, including a demanding work culture, stagnant wages, a rising cost of living and soaring housing prices.

Many South Korean women say they simply don’t have the time, money or emotional capacity to date as they put their careers first in a highly competitive job market where they often face patriarchal culture and gender inequality.

In recent years, the South Korean government has introduced several measures to combat the falling birth rate, including allowing both parents to take parental leave at the same time and extending paid parental leave.

Welfare campaigns have encouraged men to take a more active role in childcare and housework, and in some parts of the country authorities are handing out “new child vouchers” to encourage fathers to have more children.

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