South Korea, one of the Asian Tigers noted for its exceptionally high economic growth rates and rapid industrialization throughout the second half of the 20th century, has discovered that its fertility rate is among the lowest among developed countries.  South Korea’s fertility rate is 1.19, compared to the U.S.’ rate of 2.1. This low rate has serious social implications and will affect the future health and vitality of South Korea’s workforce.

The fertility rate measures the total number of children an average woman will have during her child-bearing years. The replacement rate, or rate at which enough children are born to replace people who die in the population, is 2.1. This is the rate that countries need to maintain the sizes of their population. If South Korea continues to have low birth rates, its population could decrease by 10 to 15 percent by 2050.

According to the Korea Herald, this is a huge problem.

From the article:

“The decline in the birth rate is a serious problem. It means that the country faces a declining labor force in years ahead. The population in the 30-40 age group has been declining since 2006, according to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family. By 2018, those over the age of 65 will constitute 14 percent of the population. Unless the falling birthrate is reversed soon the country is destined for a weakened economy and a failure of the social security system.”

The demographic trend in South Korea is similar to what we are seeing in the U.S., although South Korea’s demographic shifts are more dramatic. For the first time in history, South Korean women aged 30-39 gave birth to more babies than women in their 20s in 2005. In America, the Pew Research Center found that more women who were 35 or older were giving birth to more children in 2008 compared with 1990 data.

The fact that children are increasingly being born to older women in the U.S. is a function of increasing educational attainment and getting married later in life, among other factors, however it is not hindering the overall birthrate of the country. In South Korea, however, women are not only waiting until they are older to have children—women are increasingly choosing not to have children at all.

To fix this problem, the South Korean government has, for many years now, taken measures to encourage families to have more children.

“The government has unveiled a plan to offer bigger tax incentives for households with two or more children in order to arrest the declining birth rate. The economics package, however, also includes more welfare measures for married couples, [such as] more day care services, preschool education, and improved child care facilities…to encourage South Koreans to have more children.” –

Not seeing the birthrate improve, the government has broadened its approach to include more than just financial incentives to encourage people to have bigger families. The government has realized that because of overt and subtle discrimination against working mothers in South Korea, larger families will require effort from the public sector and the business community to provide policies such as more flexible work arrangements, availability of affordable, high-quality childcare, and maternity and parental leave.

South Korea has started sending researchers, officials, and students abroad to learn and research how other cultures have used family-friendly business policies, in the hopes of learning from best practice models.

Students from Chung-Ang University in Seoul last week visited Corporate Voices to learn about its partner companies’ best-practice family-friendly workplace policies. They heard from Donna Klein, who told them about the history of the work-life movement in the U.S., about the history of Corporate Voices for Working Families, and about the emerging consensus in America that there is a business imperative for policies that help working families.

The students plan to stay in America for a week conducting site visits, interviewing other family-friendly U.S. companies, and researching the work/life field. When they return to South Korea, they will publish their findings in the hopes of encouraging South Korean companies to adopt management systems that benefit working families.

Corporate Voices believes that family-friendly policies such as workplace flexibility helps improve the business bottom line. In its report, “Business Impacts of Flexibility: An Imperative for Expansion,” 29 America firms provided data showing the positive business impacts of flexibility policies and practices. The data showed that flexibility practices improved employee engagement, productivity, and well-being. As such, they are a valuable recruitment and retention tool for key talent in an organization.

Corporate Voices is proud to have its partner companies serve as best-practice models for family-friendly workplaces, and to serve as an adviser for other countries in the work-life field. We look forward to following the outcomes of the students’ research when they return to South Korea.