Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: Korea's Impending Population Crisis

The latest report by Statistics Korea on Korea’s rapid greying is hair-raising, hopefully even for those who do not take Korea’s low fertility problem seriously. Today, approximately 70% of Korea’s population is in the working age (between 15 and 64.) Stated differently, 100 Koreans in working age are supporting around 37 children and the elderly. But by 2060, less than 50% of Korea’s population is projected to be in working age. In other words, by 2060, 100 Koreans in working age are supporting 101 children and the elderly. The total population will decrease to 43 million.

(The graphic from Yonhap News starkly shows the consequence of greying Korea.)

Even more frightening is the fact that this estimate is not based on the assumption that the current fertility rate of 1.23 will continue, but based on the assumption that the fertility rate will rise all the way until 2045. If it were assumed that the fertility rate will fall to 1.01 and the inbound immigration does not increase, by 2060 Korea will only have 34.5 million people, around 33% drop from 50 million people that it currently has.

Even assuming increased inbound immigration and significant increase in fertility rate, Korea’s choice appears to be between gradual, manageable population decrease or rapid, catastrophic population decrease. Even under the most optimistic scenario, in which fertility rate increases to 1.78 per couple and inbound immigration dramatically increases, Korea would still have a decreasing size of population by 2060.


Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

13 comments:

  1. I'd actually like to hear the Korean's opinion on the consequences of the decline; do you think the drastic decline will actually change the culture or politics such that immigration will pick up to take much of the slack?

    I've seen this suggested many times for both Korea and Japan (and no doubt I will start seeing it in a decade or so about China), but I have no idea whether it's likely or even plausible.

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  2. here in Philippines, our problem is over population and our current congressmen and senators are arguing about the Reproductive Health Bill(RH). Which is better?

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  3. It seems to me that one potential result is elderly not being able to retire. I, like gwern, wonder whether politics are going to shift to accommodate the population decline - if it will result in a more relaxed immigration policy, for example, or encourage citizens not to move abroad.

    That, however, implies condoning a large number of marriages between Koreans and non-Koreans, which might increase the population, but brings up other questions: is there any security in the resulting population remaining in Korea? Would the resulting mix of nationalities be acceptable from a political/social standpoint in Korea? Obviously we can't predict the future, but we can to some degree predict the issues that might arise.

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  4. Somehow I suspect it would be similar to what it is today: foreigners are tolerated, not accepted. They are not Koreans, but they contribute to the Korean economy (or at least the Korean tax base). For that reason - and that reason only - they are tolerated. I see very few of the older generations accepting inter-racial babies, inter-racial marriages, or anything that implies a person isn't 100% Korean. Officially, the government may see the writing on the wall and embrace the foreigners, but that doesn't make them any more welcome among the population.

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  5. And just what is your problem with a population decline? I see nothing but good things coming from rich nations cutting their numbers. But then again I think that there are too many humans on this planet anyway and the quicker we cut our numbers the better off our and other species and the whole freakin' planet will be. But to reiterate, what is your exact problem with this?

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  6. It doesn't help that 40% of working Korea women in their 30's are single, and many working women are choosing to stay single or not marry.

    Maybe this "population crisis" will force Korean society to be more acceptable of single mothers and adoption?

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  7. It does seem odd that one of the world’s biggest exporters of babies is facing an impending population crisis. Perhaps one solution is to make a concerted effort to encourage domestic adoptions and thus ensuring that those children remain on Korean soil. Another solution would be to de-stigmatize single mothers (and provide affordable daycare programs, etc.) so that more of them would be willing to keep their babies and thus reduce the likelihood of those children ending up in orphanages and being sent to other nations as international adoptees.

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  8. And just what is your problem with a population decline?

    The problem not just the decline -- it is decline AND greying. Less tax-paying people --> less means of supporting those who are unable to work (i.e. the elderly) --> massive human tragedy. Slowing down of the economy and the consequent reduction of international influence is a huge problem also.

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  9. Yeah, that's about what I thought you'd say. While the scenario you paint is fairly disturbing, it's built on a faulty premise that our societies can't or won't adapt, but they will. Mandatory retirement will not last. We will work longer and more women will enter the workforce (re: Korean women's anemic participation in the workforce). And this, like the population decline, is a good thing. Tossing people out of the workforce just because they reached an arbitrary age (determined in the late 19 century BTW) is asinine. While certainly some jobs are dependent on physical prowess (firefighters) most jobs in a service economy are not and there is no reason that a seventy year old office worker cannot be as or more competent than her twenty-five year old granddaughter.

    As for international influence being dependent on the size of our populations...well, that's another 19th century theory that needs to be discarded. Our global influence is determined by societal wealth and the opinion of others in the international community, not by the size of our populations (see China). You want influence? Punch above your weight? Create a society that others want to emulate. That's how respect and influence is gained.

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  10. Mandatory retirement will not last. We will work longer and more women will enter the workforce . . .

    You are hoping your umbrella would save you against a tsunami. Even if those things are all true, it does not guard against losing more than 1/3 of the population. We are not talking about losing a small number of people. We are talking about a catastrophic loss of 16 million people over 50 years. Basically, it is as if the entire city of Seoul is going away in the next 50 years. I would agree that retirement will have to be pushed back and women will have to be working even more, but those are not the fundamental solution.

    Our global influence is determined by societal wealth and the opinion of others in the international community, not by the size of our populations . . .

    Societal wealth has a great deal to do with population. Take a look at Japan for the last 10 years. Its per capita GDP has been increasing faster than both U.S. and EU. Yet Japan's economy as a whole has been lagging behind the rest of the developed world. Why? Because it does not have enough people. If you think a country can shed 1/3 of its people within a generation and maintain the same level of economic prowess, you are totally clueless.

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  11. No, actually societal wealth and population have little to do with each other. I don't want to reduce it to absurdities but there more than a few astoundingly rich city states or small countries (Singapore, Norway, Hong Kong, Luxembourg)and, conversely, desperately poor places with huge populations. Let's not forget that China and India, with a few regions excepted, are still third world countries.

    And as for Japan, they have many problems; including a geriatric voting block that votes its own interests apparently at the expense of the rest of the country. An ossified, unresponsive bureaucracy presiding over inept,dysfunctional government(s) and a mercantilist economy? Sure. A society that has made a fetish of saving and discouragement of innovation? Absolutely. But a lack of population? (130 million isn't enough?) What they lack is a will to reform. Now, if you see Korea's future as following in tandem with Japan's, then I can see why hyperbole is rolling off your pen.

    Now, let me comment on that last statement of yours. You border on the insulting. I draw different conclusions from the same facts, but that doesn't mean that I am clueless. I just happen to disagree with you. If disagreements aren't permitted here, a warning or disclaimer on the banner would be appreciated.

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  12. First, about the tone. I have been at this gig for several years now, and I have been dealing with a lot of commenters. So I got pretty good at matching tones. You are the one who entered this conversation dripping with condescension. (If you did not realize this, it is time for you to grow some self-awareness about how your writing sounds.) I only replied in kind. But if you want to improve the tone, I am happy to do help.

    Now, about what you wrote:

    No, actually societal wealth and population have little to do with each other. . . . there more than a few astoundingly rich city states or small countries (Singapore, Norway, Hong Kong, Luxembourg)and, conversely, desperately poor places with huge populations. Let's not forget that China and India, with a few regions excepted, are still third world countries.

    You seem to have a strange definition of "societal wealth." As a whole, China and India have much, much, much greater influence in world economy than Singapore, Norway, HK and Luxembourg put together. That's why financial newspapers around the world fixate on the goings-on from China and India, not any of the other small "countries" (quotes because HK is not a country, but I will pretend that it is) you mentioned.

    Your points about Japan are no more than a lot of arm-waving. I made a prima facie case that Japan's economic decline has primarily to do with population decline. You reply by throwing in a lot of alternate hypotheses (with some of which I agree,) then simply wave your hand at the population point.

    Instead of distractions, try and make a point about how Japan's economic decline is not about population decline. (For example, perhaps you could find an example in which a country with a declining and aging population still growing faster than its peers.) If you make that case, I will be all ears.

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  13. Hello. I'm Indonesian student. My research is about South Korea immigration policy. I need information about the legislative process of "Act on the treatment of foreigners in Korea". Really thanks for your informastion ^^

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