“South Korea Is Trying to Boost its Birth Rate,” read a City Lab article published this past summer. “It’s Not Working.” I was curious. The U.S. is famous for being one of the only developed countries without paid maternity leave, and our lack of subsidized childcare is a well-known problem for working mothers. Other developed countries frequently offer these benefits and more. Why weren’t these policies working for South Korea?
This is a feminist issue. When people decry the decline of (white) birth rates in the U.S.—“millennials aren’t having children”—I frequently point to the lack of child-friendly policies like paid maternity leave or subsidized childcare. But if we’re going to point to holistic solutions—solutions that give women who would like to have children the resources they need to do so—we need to know why women in a country like South Korea are having fewer children despite having access to these resources and then some.
As the article explains:
On paper, the South Korean parental safety net puts countries like the U.S., which offers no guaranteed maternity leave and is cutting funding for the poorest children, to shame. But in terms of boosting the birth rate, the government’s decade-old pro-natalist policy has yet to move the needle. This year, South Korea is expect to clock in at fewer than one birth per woman this year. In Seoul, it’s even lower: Last year, the rate was only 0.94 births per woman.
For one thing, the article explains, the child allowance isn’t sufficient to cover the full costs of raising children, and public daycare facilities have long wait lists. But there are other problems, problems that have nothing to do with government policies—problems that can’t be fixed by government subsidies. These problems have to do with the workplace:
But money and access to child care is hardly the only barrier to boosting births, University of Derby’s Sung-Hee Lee says. She points out that the government’s emphasis on opening more day cares also reflects something else in South Korean society: the primacy of work over family. “Why should we need 12 hours of free child care?” she asks. “This is crazy. Parents should have the time to look after their children.”
One mother recounts the emotional struggle of choosing her job over her son, who’s now four years old. “Work usually ends at 6:30 p.m., but it’s hard to leave when your boss is still there,” 39-year-old Hye Jin-Jeong, who works in the HR department for a major retail company, says through an interpreter. She’s referring to a concept known to Koreans as nunchi, which, among other things, refers to the unspoken rule that employees should stay in the office until their bosses leave. The practice is not uncommon despite the government’s recent attempts to limit the workweek from 68 hours a week to 52.
It doesn’t matter how much you pay women to have children—how much paid childcare you offer or how much paid maternity leave—if you have a work culture that demands that your employees stay at work till all hours, you are going to have a problem with your fertility rate.
“When my son started talking, he would often ask me why I came home so late and tell me how lonely he was,” Hye says. “At the time, I felt like I had to choose between earning money and being with my child, and I felt really guilty.”
Despite all of our problems in the U.S. with childcare access and lack of paid maternity leave, I feel suddenly grateful. Here, at least in certain segments of our workforce, companies want to be known as family-friendly. Offering work-from-home days and family-friendly sick leave policies keeps workers happy, creates a positive workplace culture, and helps retain talent. I have had the opportunity to see what this looks like firsthand, and it is amazing.
I am hopeful that millennials will be able to change U.S. workplace culture more or less permanently by demanding more worker-friendly and family-friendly workplace policies. And even where these policies have yet to be enacted, we benefit from a far shorter workweek.
Back to South Korea, with its far longer workweek. The City Lab article includes interviews with multiple women on the pressures they felt in the workplace after having children—and the expectation that they would leave the workplace and focus on childrearing.
Keum-Lee’s sister, Young Hwa-Lee, has managed to keep her position as the secretary to the head of the food company Shin Dong Bang Corp., but it wasn’t easy, “When I had my first child, I didn’t feel the discrimination much,” the 45-year-old mother of two says through an interpreter. “But when I had my second child and came back from maternity leave, people looked at me strangely—as if to question why I would want to return after having two kids.”
Half of working mothers refuse maternity leave, due to these pressures. The South Korean government may be working to ensure that women can keep working after having children—with childcare and maternity leave—but without change in workplace culture—the long workweek and expectation of putting work over family—these efforts can only go so far.
Many workplace expectations that may have worked when men worked outside of the home and had wives who stayed at home to care for children and do household work do not work in a world where both men and women work outside the home—and want to continue doing so. If those expectations don’t change, women will change their actions, and have fewer children.
That goes for the U.S. as well as South Korea.
The next time I hear someone complaining about millennials not having children, I’ll make doubly sure my response is dual—we need both childcare subsidies and paid maternity leave, and family-friendly workplace cultures. Women need to know that they can have children without passing up promotions or being pressured to put work over family.
The City Lab article also points to a third issue:
It’s these kinds of deep-seated cultural habits that have proven stubbornly resistant to government policies and kid-friendly investments. Making South Koreans make more babies isn’t just about more funding or better access to subsidized child care—it’s about changing “the societal image [of motherhood] and the pressure keep women shackled to her child,” says Hwa-Lee.
That we definitely have in the U.S. as well—the pressure to be a super-parent, the mommy wars, the expectation that mothers give up their identities and become Mommies—and, of course, the belief that women who “dump” their children in daycare are bad moms.
Paid maternity leave and childcare subsidies are necessary, but they are not sufficient. If we want to create a world where every woman who is interested in raising children has the resources and space to do so effectively (and sanely), there is work to be done.
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