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[Lee Jae-min] “Wo-La-Bael” finally

According to experts at think tanks in Seoul, when it comes to raising a family there are three indispensable elements: a stable job, a decent dwelling and a family-friendly or -supportive social system. On all three counts, we are failing, and failing miserably.

Getting a job after college graduation requires acrobatic performance with stellar academic record and unbelievable field experience. Housing prices are going through the roof. Child education is extremely costly. Worse yet, the situations in the nation keeps deteriorating. Learning the harsh realities of life, young people get cold feet on having families and raising children.

That we are failing dramatically is proven by numbers. New data shows that Korea registered another record low in birth rate in 2017 with just 1.05. To see the extent of sharp dip, it was 1.17 in 2016. So, we saw an almost 10 percent decrease in one year. The number of newly born babies in 2017 was 357,700, breaking the psychological Maginot line of the 400,000 mark for the first time. Again, it was 406,200 in 2016. To put this number into perspective, in 1970 when Korea entered the first stage of economic development, the numbers were 4.53 and 1 million respectively. Perhaps more surprisingly, 2017 was the first time when the number of deaths outnumbered that of births in the nation. The speed and intensity of decrease have not been the same in other countries.

Which means the national population is diminishing much faster than previously calculated. With the numbers this low and with the speed this fast, the dwindling workforce in a rapidly aging society will deliver a critical blow to our society. In a way, all of the concerns and worries in and around the nation today will become moot. Theoretically, the continued trend may threaten to unravel the very fabric of the nation.

More frustrating is how we got here. Since the middle of 2000s, more than 100 trillion won ($93 billion) has been poured into various support measures to stop the slide in birth rates. Hardly anything worked -- unfortunately it has been like pouring water into a sieve. The expensive lesson is that the issue is not the money. It is the system. The flawed social system needs mending to solve the problem. Direct national responses addressing the three structural issues upfront -- job creation, affordable housing and family-friendly social environment -- are urgently needed, in place of piecemeal welfare programs.

Concerning the third task of inducing a family-friendly social environment, luckily we are sensing some positive changes. The importance of work-life balance is now being understood by the public and private sectors, and a slow turning of the big social vessel is being felt. A new term “wo-la-bael” (Korean abbreviated term for work-life balance) has been coined and is being widely referred to.

The amendment of the Labor Standard Act one week ago is the latest effort to push the country in this direction. Through the amendment the maximum working hours in the country were reduced to 52 hours per week -- a significant reduction from the previous 68 hours. The government will now encourage officials to take ‘winter’ vacation -- something unthinkable thus far. A more family-friendly atmosphere will permeate society and help create a new social value. Though not fully, it may help stop Korea’s population from shrinking.

The recognition of “wo-la-bael” may be the first step to shed Korea’s chronic competition-prone, do-your-best culture. We have been trained to do our best and now are training our children to do their best so as to win in endless competition. Fierce competition blooms into fiercer competition at the workplace. Pushed to their limit and always trying to outdo their peers, the young generation has become unable to think about having and raising their own families. As a country, we need to loosen up. That may the first thing we should do lest we see the nation slowly shrink and perhaps wither away in several hundred years.

Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.
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