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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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Increasing Gender Equality in South Korea May Push Up the Birth Rate

As I note in my book, demographers have increasingly pointed out that gender inequality has two dimensions--each of which affects the birth rate in different ways. There is the public sphere inequality, in which women are discriminated against in the labor force and in politics (and maybe even in driving in public). Then there is the private, domestic inequality, in which women are expected to do the home chores such as caring for the kids, cleaning house, and cooking meals. If gender inequality is high in both spheres, fertility tends to be high. If gender equality is high in both spheres, fertility tends to be low, but not necessarily too low. The problem comes when gender equality exists in the public sphere, but less so in the private sphere. As it turns out, that is associated with below replacement level wherever we find it, most famously in southern and eastern Europe, and in East Asia. 

A few months ago I blogged about a study in Demographic Research showing that couples in East Asia who share the work are apt to have higher fertility than those who don't. The authors of that paper are editing a set of papers in Demographic Research and the most recent one, by Erin Hye-Won Kim at the National University of Singapore, looks specifically at data for South Korean couples. The results are in line with what we would expect, but with a special twist--women with only one child may be the key. Longitudinal data suggest that if they intend to have a second child, they are more likely to have that child than women at other parities. And the ones whose husbands help a bit around the house (along with the availability of day care for young children) are more inclined to intend to have a second child. So, that leads the author to the following policy implications of the research findings:

To tackle Korea’s lowest-low fertility, government policies would be wise to target women with one child and relieve their burden through a more gender-equal division of domestic labour and available and affordable childcare. It has been argued that South Korea, together with several other East Asian countries, remains in the first stage of the gender revolution framework proposed by Goldscheider, Bernhardt, and LappegĂ„rd (2015) (Kan and Hertog 2017). Reversing the current low fertility rate through the second stage of the revolution could be challenging in highly gendered East Asian societies, with their patriarchal family systems, welfare regimes relying on the family, and work- oriented lifestyles. For these countries to boost their persistently low fertility rates, it seems inevitable that they would have to improve gender equality, both inside and outside the home, to enable women to have a better work–life balance. Raising fertility in East Asia may take an entire nation: Changes in various institutions, including the family, the workplace, and the government, can lift the heavy burdens from the shoulders of women, making childbearing more attractive to them.
I was especially struck by the idea that it may take an entire nation to raise the birth rate in East Asia. This is a huge cultural shift and individuals cannot do it very effectively on their own.

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