Last year South Korea had the lowest number of babies born since their statistics agency started tracking this back in 1970. The decline has been enormous: in 1970, just over one million children were born, while in 2017, the number had dropped to a third of that, at just 357,000. Back in 1970 women were, on average, having about 4.5 children each. Last year that number dropped to 1.05, or half the 2.1 number needed to keep the population stable.
South Korea is facing a demographic crisis – as The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson reported, Statistics Korea says that by 2060 the population will have declined as much as a third, from the 51 million it has today, to somewhere between 34-44 million.
Why has the South Korean baby become such a rarity? The same reason babies are becoming a rarity all over the developed world: having children is seen as a hindrance to personal fulfillment and career advancement. So, for example, the South Korean government’s Family Minister Chung Hyun-Back – the official tasked with addressing her country’s population crisis – is herself a childless 64-year-old woman who chose to remain single so she could pursue her career goals.
She sees the problem as being one of discrimination and excessive work demands. Women who take maternity leave are often pressured to resign, rather than return, because companies find it problematic to accommodate their time away. And, when women have children and a career the statistics show that their husbands are not carrying the same load at home as they are. Thus women feel pressured to choose either a career or children. And more and more are choosing careers.
Chung’s solution is to increase the accommodations companies make for mothers, and to push for more help at home from husbands and fathers. She doesn’t want women making a different choice – to choose children as a more important priority than career – but wants them to be able to do both.
But is this realistic? In the real world we have only so many hours in the day. We recognize this limitation means that if the CEO of Apple also wanted to be the CEO of Microsoft – if he knew he had the talents and interest needed – time simply wouldn’t permit him to hold two full-time careers at once.
So why do many think that time allows for both a committed career outside the home, and committed parenting inside it? It’s only because the world has so belittled the importance of parenting that we’ve come to believe it can be done on a part-time basis, or handed off to daycare workers and schoolteachers.
But deep down, even the world knows a choice is involved, because justice simply can’t be done to both roles. If both mom and dad are at the office or on their way to and from it for 9-10 hours a day, who’s caring for little Timmy after school? And when mom and dad get home, which parent is going to have the energy to listen patiently, correct lovingly, and seize teaching opportunities enthusiastically in those short hours that remain before the children head to bed? Maybe some do have that energy reserve, but for most of us this is why doing both isn’t an option – not if we understand how important the parenting role is.
That means that if South Korea and the West want to address their coming demographic crisis, then they need to stop pushing the impossibility of both. Instead the world needs to elevate the role of parenting, honoring it as a task worthy of our energies, our intellect, and our passion. It is challenge to take on that demands much but offers its rewards too.
Christians also need to remember that raising children is no part-time gig, and no trivial pursuit. God has given parents the task of being our child’s primary educator, their disciplinarian, and their example of godly living. Raising them up in the ways of the Lord is quite the challenge but also quite the opportunity. Finances don’t always allow for one parent to stay at home. Divorce and death sometimes take one parent away. And when our kids head to school, then there might be time for parents to take on additional roles. But if we recognize parenting as the God-given calling it is, then we’ll understand that having a parent readily available to meet our children’s needs is an ideal worth pursuing.