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Rejuvenating Korea: Policies for a Changing Society

image of Rejuvenating Korea: Policies for a Changing Society

Korean families are changing fast. While birth rates remain low, Koreans are marrying and starting a family later than ever before, if at all. Couple-with-children households, the dominant household type in Korea until recently, will soon make up fewer than one quarter of all households. These changes will have a profound effect on Korea’s future. Among other things, the Korean labour force is set to decline by about 2.5 million workers by 2040, with potential major implications for economic performance and the sustainability of public finances. Since the early 2000s, public policy has changed to help parents reconcile work and family commitments: Korea has developed a comprehensive formal day-care and kindergarten system with enrolment rates that are now on par with the Nordic countries. Korea also has one year of paid parental leave for both parents, but only about 25% of mothers and 5% of fathers use it, as workplace cultures are often not conducive to parents, especially fathers, taking leave. Cultural change will take time, but this review suggests there also is a need for additional labour market, education and social policy reform to help Koreans achieve both work and family aspirations, and contribute to the rejuvenation of Korean society.

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Executive summary

Korea is a changing society. Over the past 60 years, strong economic development has made Korea the ninth largest economy in the world. Korea’s men and women are among the most highly educated in the world. Gains in opportunities outside of marriage – in the labour market and in wider society – together with the increasing costs of raising children mean that the traditional marriage package – the male breadwinner notion – has lost its appeal to many young women, especially those with high levels of educational attainment. Nevertheless, childbirth remains strongly associated with marriage. Thus, the barriers young people face in finding a partner while establishing themselves in the labour market contribute to declining fertility. Indeed, total fertility rates have dropped from six children per woman on average in 1960 to just below one child per woman in 2018. At the same time, greater wealth and better access to health supports have contributed to rapid gains in life expectancy: Korea faces the fastest rate of population ageing across the OECD.

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