South Korea's Rapid and Drastic Fertility Decline

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South Korea has experienced a drastic and rapid fertility decline in the last 60 years, going from 6.0 (in 1960) to 0.8 (in 2022). This decline was spurred on by policies encouraging contraception, an economic development plan, and the realization that having fewer children usually leads to better living conditions. This shift has seen South Korea move from a poor nation to an affluent one.

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Around the world, nations are looking at the prospect of shrinking, aging populations – but none more so than South Korea. Over the last 60 years, South Korea has undergone the most rapid fertility decline in recorded human history. In 1960, the nation’s total fertility rate – the number of children, on average, that a woman has during her reproductive years – stood at just under six children per woman. In 2022, that figure was 0.78. South Korea is the only country in the world to register a fertility rate of less than one child per woman, although others – Ukraine, China and Spain – are close. As a demographer who over the past four decades has conducted extensive research on Asian populations, I know that this prolonged and steep decline will have huge impacts on South Korea. It may slow down economic growth, contributing to a shift that will see the country end up less rich and with a smaller population.

South Korea's decline in fertility rate is the most rapid of any country in recorded human history

Older, poorer, more dependent .

Countries need a total fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman to replace their population, when the effects of immigration and emigration aren’t considered. And South Korea’s fertility rate has been consistently below that number since 1984, when it dropped to 1.93, from 2.17 the year before.

What makes the South Korean fertility rate decline more astonishing is the relatively short period in which it has occurred. Back in 1800, the U.S. total fertility rate was well over 6.0. But it took the U.S. around 170 years to consistently drop below the replacement level. Moreover, in the little over 60 years in which South Korea’s fertility rate fell from 6.0 to 0.8, the U.S. saw a more gradual decline from 3.0 to 1.7.

Of the leading countries with fertility rate below 1, South Korea is the only one in which the rate has been consistently below the replacement level since 1984

Fertility decline can have a positive effect in certain circumstances, via something demographers refer to as "the demographic dividend." This dividend refers to accelerated increases in a country’s economy that follow a decline in birth rates and subsequent changes in its age composition that result in more working-age people and fewer dependent young children and elderly people.

And that is what happened in South Korea – a decline in fertility helped convert South Korea from a very poor country to a very rich one.

South Korea's five-year economic development plan in 1962 was instrumental in the fertility rate decline

Behind the economic miracle .

South Korea’s fertility decline began in the early 1960s when the government adopted an economic planning program and a population and family planning program. By that time, South Korea was languishing, having seen its economy and society destroyed by the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. Indeed by the late-1950s, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1961, its annual per capita income was only about US$82. But dramatic increases in economic growth began in 1962, when the South Korean government introduced a five-year economic development plan.

The age composition of South Korea shifted, increasing the share of working-age people and decreasing that of young children

Crucially, the government also introduced a population planning program in a bid to bring down the nation’s fertility rate. This included a goal of getting 45% of married couples to use contraception – until then, very few Koreans used contraception. This further contributed to the fertility reduction, as many couples realized that having fewer children would often lead to higher living standards for themselves and their children.

This shift resulted in more economic opportunities, leading to a more affluent society

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