This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Demographic Tales From Korea

China comes to the top of almost anyone's list when thinking about East Asian countries who have benefitted economically by improving life expectancy, rapidly cutting back on childbearing, and educating that smaller generation of children. However, that is also the story of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. This week's Economist features the latter country in a comparison piece with North Korea. In the pages devoted to demography, the focus is largely on South Korea, with occasional references to North Korea. The story of South Korea has all of the plot lines of a "good" demographic tale: A country with a long history of education as a route to prestigious jobs undergoes a very rapid transition from a predominantly rural country with high mortality and high fertility to a predominantly urban country with low mortality and not just low, but very low (TFR = 1.3) fertility. The older population is increasing as a fraction of the population, and early retirement is creating economic problems in a society without a good safety net for the elderly beyond the (increasingly small) family. In the meantime, the younger generation is focused on getting its few children per family into the very best schools. Indeed, the Economist suggests that the intensity of this competition is one factor explaining the very low fertility. 
This competitive spirit may be the chief reason why fertility is so low. South Koreans feel they have to invest huge amounts of time and money to help their child succeed. The cost of education in particular is forbidding. The fundamental problem of child-rearing in South Korea is too few children, too much rearing.
The other factor is another well-known plot line--women are educated and are in the labor force in high proportions, but huge gaps in gender inequality mean that women are expected to all of the housework and childcare. That is an almost universal recipe for low fertility. If men want to live in a society with more children per woman they are going to have to shake off thousands of years of history and step up and share the housework and childrearing. 

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