South Koreans are likely to have fewer weddings and babies this year than ever before, part of a demographic shift that risks hobbling the nation’s economy.
The number of marriages and births recorded during the first five months of 2016 hit the lowest levels for the same period in any year since the nation’s statistics office started compiling monthly data in 2000.
The figures underscore the challenge facing the government, which over the past decade has poured 80 trillion won ($72 billion) into efforts to reverse the falling birthrate. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn said this month that the country faces a crisis that threatens to limit long-term economic growth.
Many young South Koreans say they can’t afford to get married or have children. They cite housing costs as one of the biggest obstacles. Record-low interest rates meant to spur economic growth have fueled a property boom that has priced many of them out of the market. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate among those 15 to 29 years old is 9.2 percent—more than double the national average.
“Previous policies were focused on getting married women to have more babies, but a more fundamental problem could be that young people without jobs are finding it difficult to get married,” said Yoo Jin Sung, a Seoul-based research fellow at the Korea Economic Research Institute. “Youth unemployment is raising the age at which people get married and have their first babies, which can affect the total number of babies they plan to have.”
Women also say South Korea’s corporate culture makes life challenging for working mothers, leaving many reluctant to get married and have children.
Reversing the demographic tide is becoming more urgent. The country will pass two unwelcome milestones next year: its workforce will begin shrinking and people aged 65 and older will outnumber those 14 and below. Without successful government action, the economy’s potential growth rate will fall to 2 percent between 2026 and 2030, from about 2.7 percent now, the Hyundai Research Institute estimates.
The demographic decline is already entrenched: The number of women in their 20s and 30s is expected to fall to about 5.5 million by 2030, down from 7.3 million in 2010, according to the government’s statistics office.