S. Korea goes from population control to urging births

Korea's population is ageing rapidly and its workforce is shrinking. 
Korea's population is ageing rapidly and its workforce is shrinking.  PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL • It was only 20 years ago that South Korea was so intent on population control that getting sterilised put young couples on the fast track for public housing.

Even the army was in on the act, offering a free pass from annual military training to any man willing to shuffle off for a vasectomy.

All that has changed. Korea's population is ageing rapidly and its workforce is shrinking. The number of people aged 15 to 64 will peak at 37 million next year, and then steadily drop.

After the rapid gains in efficiency that saw the rise of industrial powerhouses such as Hyundai Motor and Samsung Electronics, improvements in labour productivity are also getting harder to find.

Under this mounting pressure, the economy's potential growth rate could slip by a percentage point to 2.2 per cent in the 2020s. The government says the next few years may be the last real chance to escape the demographic trap, and President Park Geun Hye's administration will release a blueprint next month for a five-year plan to tackle ageing and the low birth rate.

It will have to address a workplace culture that is not geared to women balancing a career with child rearing, and to find ways to help couples, who are marrying later, to have kids and raise a family.

At the other end of the spectrum, efforts to stimulate consumer spending are being challenged by the swelling ranks of seniors. Average life expectancy is above 80 and older people are trying to save more and spend less during their ever longer years of retirement.

"Ageing is the key factor that will weigh on South Korea's growth," said Korea Development Institute researcher Cho Byung Koo, adding: "In a few years time, it will be too late to do anything."

Early signs point to a blueprint that will include support for couples seeking fertility treatment, more efforts to promote marriage and finding ways to turn ageing into an opportunity for the medical and leisure sectors.

The administration is already ushering in a new law next year to ensure large companies allow employees to work until at least 60.

While there is no official retirement age, a typical worker's career ends around 53, as their tenure- based salary climbs and they face pressure to leave, data shows.

Family planning advertising campaigns show how Korea has come full circle on children and ageing.

Posters from the 1970s and 1980s warned Korea would be overflowing, even if couples had just one child. Slogans these days could not be more different. "Be a mother" and "I like kids, two kids" are the running theme. BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2015, with the headline 'S. Korea goes from population control to urging births'. Print Edition | Subscribe