Explained: Why South Korea’s falling population has its govt worried

For the first time in history, the number of deaths recorded in South Korea over the past year exceeded births, causing the country’s population to decline.

In 2020, around 3.07 lakh people died in South Korea, and only 2.75 lakh babies were born. The number of new births fell by 10 per cent from 2019, according to the BBC.

At the end of 2020, the country’s population was 5,18,29,023, less by 20,838 from last year.

Why is South Korea’s population declining?

In many parts of the world, greater economic development and lower fertility rates often go hand in hand.

South Korea, a highly industrialised nation, already has the world’s lowest birth rate at 0.92 as of 2019; the number representing the average number of children a woman has. This figure is substantially lower than the fertility rate of 2.1 required for replacement of the existing population.

In India, the fertility rate is 2.2, as per 2019 figures.

According to a Guardian report, the growth rate of South Korea’s population declined from 1.49% in 2010 to 0.05% by 2019. If this trend continues, the government predicts that the population will drop from the current 5.18 crore to 3.9 crore by 2067, and 46 per cent of people will be above 64 years of age.

Some of the reasons believed to be behind the low rate birth rate in South Korea include reluctance to opt for maternity leave, as well as high real estate prices, which dissuade young couples from buying a house and starting a family.

What is the government doing to address this?

South Korea’s government has said it would bring in “fundamental changes” to stem this trend.

In December, President Moon Jae-in announced policies such as giving cash incentives for families. The scheme, which starts in 2022, will provide a one-off payment of 2 million won (around Rs 1.35 lakh) for each child born, to help cover parental costs.

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Until the baby turns one, the government will pay an additional 300,000 won (around Rs 20,000) every month. After 2025, the incentive will be raised to 500,000 won (around Rs 34,000).

Is a dwindling population always undesirable?

When the young population in a country declines, it creates labour shortages, which have a major detrimental impact on the economy.

More older people also means that demands for healthcare and pensions can soar, burdening the country’s social spending system further when fewer people are working and contributing to it.

On the flip side, low birth rates can improve the standard of living in low-income countries. In such countries, fewer children being born would mean they would enjoy greater access to already deficient public services such as health and education.

Also, an increasing number of experts are dismissing the notion that more number of aged people would cause healthcare costs to shoot up. This is because, around the world, not just life expectancy, but “healthy life expectancy” has risen. This means that on average, people would be spending more years in good health than ever before.

Another effect of a declining population is that it would provide an impetus to migration. As nations with falling numbers of young people would experience labour shortages, they would have to open up borders and allow more immigrants to come in and work, thus causing their society to become more cosmopolitan.

Is the world’s population expected to fall?

In July 2020, a Lancet analysis said that the world population will peak at 973 crore people in 2064, and will decline from this peak to 879 crore in 2100.

In India, the population is expected to reach a peak of 160 crore in 2048, up from 138 crore in 2017, and will decline by 32 per cent to 109 crore in 2100.

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