miércoles, mayo 22

Reviews | Is South Korea disappearing?

For some time now, South Korea has been a striking textbook case of the depopulation problem plaguing the developed world. Almost all rich countries have seen their birth rates stabilize below replacement level, but this generally means it is around 1.5 children per woman. For example, in 2021, the United States was at 1.7, France at 1.8, Italy at 1.3, and Canada at 1.4.

But South Korea stands out for falling into below-replacement territory in the 1980s, but has recently seen an even bigger decline – falling below one child per woman in 2018 to 0 .8 after the pandemic and now, in preliminary data for the second and third quarters. by 2023, to only 0.7 births per woman.

It’s worth understanding what this means. A country that maintained a birth rate at this level would have, for every 200 people in one generation, 70 people in the next, a depopulation exceeding that which the Black Death caused in Europe in the 14th century. Run the experiment with a second generational turnover, and your initial population of 200 falls below 25. Run it again, and you approach the kind of demographic collapse caused by fictional superfluity in Stephen King’s «The Stand.» .

By newspaper columnist standards, I’m a low birth rate alarmist, but in some ways I consider myself an optimist. Just as the overpopulation panic of the 1960s and 1970s wrongly assumed that trends would simply continue upward without adaptation, I suspect a deep pessimism about the downward trajectory of birth rates – the kind that imagines a 22nd century America dominated by the Amish, let’s say – underrated. human adaptability, that is, the extent to which populations that thrive in the face of demographic decline will model a higher fertility future and attract converts over time.

In this spirit of optimism, I don’t actually think that South Korea’s birth rate will remain this low for decades, nor that its population will drop from around 51 million today to the single-digit millions that my experience suggests. thought.

But I believe the estimates that plan a dive to fewer than 35 million people by the end of the 2060s – and this decline alone could be enough to plunge Korean society into crisis.

There will be a choice between accepting steep economic decline as the age pyramid rapidly inverts and trying to welcome immigrants on a scale far beyond that which is already destabilizing Western Europe. There will inevitably be an abandonment of the elderly, vast ghost towns and crumbling buildings, and an out-migration of young people who see no future as caretakers of a retirement community. And at some point, there will most likely be an invasion of North Korea (current fertility rate: 1.8), if its southern neighbor struggles to maintain a competent military on the ground.

For the rest of the world, the South Korean example demonstrates that the shortage of births can worsen much more quickly than the general trend observed so far in rich countries.

This is not to say that this will be the case, as there are a number of patterns that set South Korea apart. For example, one of the often-cited factors behind Korea’s birth shortage is a particularly brutal culture of academic competition, which breeds «cramming schools.» in addition to normal educationfueling parental anxiety and student misery, and making family life potentially hellish in a way that discourages people from even making an attempt.

Another reason is the special interaction between the country’s cultural conservatism and social and economic modernization. For a long time, South Korea’s sexual revolution was partly stifled by traditional social mores – the country has very low rates of out-of-wedlock births, for example. But this ultimately gave rise to intertwined rebellions, a feminist revolt against conservative social expectations and a male anti-feminist reactionleading to strong gender polarization that has reshaped the country’s politics, even as the marriage rate has reached an all-time high.

It also doesn’t help that South Korean conservatism is historically more Confucian and familial than religious in the Western sense; my feeling is that a strong religious belief is a better incentive to family formation than traditionalist custom. Or that the country has long been at the forefront of Internet gaming culture, drawing particularly young men deeper into virtual existence and alienating them from the opposite sex.

But now that I’ve written these descriptions, they don’t read so much as simple contrasts with American culture as exaggerations of the trends we’re also experiencing.

We too have an exhausting meritocracy. We, too, see a growing ideological divide between the men and women of Generation Z. We, too, are secularizing and forging a cultural conservatism that is illiberal but not necessarily pious, a spiritual but not religious right. We, too, struggle to master the temptations and pathologies of virtual existence.

The current trend in South Korea is therefore much more than a dark surprise. It is a warning of what is possible for us.