A newborn lying in the nursery.

South Korea had the lowest fertility rate on the planet in 2023.

Photo: Getty Images

South Korea is facing a demographic crisis so severe that the government has just created the Low Birth Rate Planning Ministry to tackle the problem. Seoul calls the situation a national emergency.

The country had the lowest fertility rate on the planet in 2023, i.e. 0.72 children per woman. In the absence of strong immigration, the fertility rate to avoid demographic decline is 2.1.

The average age at which a Korean woman becomes a mother for the first time is 33.6 years, the highest age among member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Government investments of around 300 billion Canadian dollars in various incentive programs since 2006 have not made it possible to reverse this trend which raises fears for the worst.

Companies themselves offer financial incentives to encourage their employees to have children. The Booyoung Group, specializing in construction, announced in February that it would donate the equivalent of 7 million Canadian dollars for 70 children born since 2021.

For her part, Lee Hyewon is four months pregnant. She can testify to the difficulties of trying to start a family in South Korea in 2024.

This 39-year-old woman left her job of 13 years at a public relations firm so she could have a child and start her own business.

A woman wears a coat and smiles.

Lee Hyewon is four months pregnant.

Photo: Radio-United States / Philippe Leblanc

She says she saw too many women sidelined in the company where she worked after starting a family. Several colleagues who were on an upward trajectory were passed over for promotions that she believed they deserved.

She believes that the absence of female role models who have been able to reconcile high-level work, personal ambitions and family life plays a big role.

The youth marriage rate has also fallen in our society. Both men and women therefore hesitate to marry. The main reason is that we have very high expectations of financial stability before starting a family. And in our economy right now, it’s really difficultsays Lee Hyewon.

A high cost

In a park in Seoul where he goes every day to listen to nostalgic music and watch his friends play a few games of Korean chess or janggi, an 80-year-old retiree who chose not to reveal his name says he understands young people.

It is unaffordable to raise a family today, he says. Young people don’t have stable jobs and inflation makes everything unaffordable.

He does not want seniors to be seen as a burden by these young people struggling with a more precarious financial situation. The aging population will lead to growing healthcare costs and increase the workload of South Korean doctors.

Thousands of young doctors have been engaged in a standoff with the government for two months. Many of them resigned and demonstrated against the plan to increase the number of admissions to medical schools.

The government considers this measure essential in the face of the aging population. Doctors are instead calling for reform of the health service.

According to demographic forecasts, South Korea will officially become a so-called society. super old starting next year. Around 20% of the population of 50 million will then be over 65 years old.

The country is increasing efforts to ensure that older people stay longer in the job market.

Philippe Leblanc’s report

A second career

At 61 and after a career in finance, Chang Eungwhan could have retired. Instead, he ensures the compliance of a new building in Seoul. He became a building inspector.

I continue to work to be financially comfortable. I want to continue paying for my children’s education and also be able to help my family if there are needshe maintains.

Chang Eungwhan completed the necessary courses to obtain certification to begin his second career at an employment transition center of the Korean Ministry of Labor. In the interview, they looked at my experience and my qualifications and suggested that I become a building inspector.he explains.

The South Korean government has opened 33 such transition centers to keep older people in the workforce. These establishments are aimed at people aged 40 and over who are planning their retirement and who wish to continue working in another field afterwards.

Large conglomerates like Samsung recruit from these government centers. About 110,000 Koreans took classes there last year.

% of Koreans are over 40years old today. The retirement age is quite young in Korea. Although the official retirement age is 60years, most people retire around 49years. The main services we offer are job search and vocational training. The trend is increasing, notes Ma Gye Dee, director of the Gyeonggi government center. 60% of Koreans are over 40 years old today. The retirement age is quite young in Korea. Although the official retirement age is 60, most people retire around age 49. The main services we offer are job search and professional training.

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Postponing retirement

The situation is so worrying that unions are proposing to push back the official retirement age.

Associate professor at the Institute on Aging at Korea University, Lee Soo Young, said that according to projections that predict a demographic decline within twenty years, South Korea’s working population will have fallen by 13 million people in 2050.

A man speaks in front of a library.

Lee Soo Young is an associate professor at the Institute on Aging at Korea University.

Photo: Radio-United States / Philippe Leblanc

The expert, who previously worked for the South Korean government, adds that the social burden will continue to increase for workers and that the risk of a widening chasm between workers of different generations is great, as their skills vary. are not in the same areas of the economy currently.

How we use this older workforce will determine the survival of the South Korean nation and economy, he believes. If we do not integrate older people more, South Korea will no longer be able to be productive. To this end, we need to more actively integrate new technologies as well as constant professional training for the older workforce.

Chang Eungwhan intends to continue to provide his share of efforts for a long time to come. In addition to his new job as a building inspector, he is studying to become a security technician. years old, if my health allows it. This is the kind of job I could work in until I’m 80, health permitting. He says.

For her part, Lee Hyewon continues to work normally, mainly from home, even though she is four months pregnant.

The future of Korean society concerns her more than before, however. She hopes to help change attitudes and help solve South Korea’s demographic problem.

I think a lot about the world my child and the next generation will inherit. I really hope to set a role model by showing them that even within the family, as a woman, I am capable of continuing my personal development inside and outside the home she says.

With the collaboration of Lee Hyun Choi

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