South Korea has the lowest fertility in the world, with total fertility falling below 0.8 last year; that means each generation would be only 40% the size of the previous one. Birth rates are falling across most of the world, but the reason East Asia nations and South Korea in particular are leading the collapse seems to be miserable relations between the sexes. Korean feminists are full of outrage about their second-class treatment, while Korean conservatives (like the new president) regularly say things about feminists that in the US nobody but misogynist trolls would dare to utter.
As in Japan, the expectation that white collar workers will put in very long hours plays a part; the demands placed on executives are almost impossible to bear without a supportive spouse, so a marriage between two people with careers has no room for parenthood. Korean women complain that their husbands refuse to be any help with children, so they are saddled with the whole burden.
Hawon Jung in the NY Times:
A 2022 survey found that more women than men — 65 percent versus 48 percent — don’t want children. They’re doubling down by avoiding matrimony (and its conventional pressures) altogether. The other term in South Korea for birth strike is “marriage strike.” . . .
Young Koreans have well-documented reasons not to start a family, including the staggering costs of raising children, unaffordable homes, lousy job prospects and soul-crushing work hours. But women in particular are fed up with this traditionalist society’s impossible expectations of mothers. So they’re quitting. . . .
Discrimination against working mothers by employers is also absurdly common. In one notorious case, the country’s top baby formula maker was accused of pressuring female employees to quit after getting pregnant.
And gender-based violence is “shockingly widespread,” according to Human Rights Watch. In 2021, a woman was murdered or targeted for murder every 1.4 days or less, according to the Korea Women’s Hotline. Women have dubbed the act of ending a relationship without getting a vicious reaction a “safe breakup.”
But women haven’t passively accepted the toxic masculinity. They’ve organized raucously, from Asia’s most successful #MeToo movement to groups like “4B,” which translates to the “Four no's: no dating, no sex, no marriage and no child-rearing.”
“The birth strike is women’s revenge on a society that puts impossible burdens on us and doesn’t respect us,” says Jiny Kim, 30, a Seoul office worker who’s intent on remaining childless.
I suppose one underlying factor here is the extremely rapid economic and technological development of South Korea, which has outrun social change and left many people feeling bewildered.
But I am fascinated by this dynamic: that the richer societies get, the more people feel that they can't afford to have children. It is simply not true that having a child in Korea today is a greater economic burden than it was 25 years ago, and yet people feel this to be true. Part of this has to be that however fast our incomes rise, or expectations rise faster, leaving us always behind. Another part is our placement of the "career" at the center of life; more and more people can't imagine life without one, which means other things have to be shoved to the side.
What good is getting richer if it leaves us feeling less able to afford the things we want to do?