This essay was originally published in the May 2023 edition of First Things.
Birth rates in South Korea are cratering. That country’s birth dearth demonstrates that men and women can lose the taste for family life, for one another, and for posterity. The sexual urge, a part of our natural makeup, has been deprioritized and detached from procreation. Instinct is no match for a culture of barrenness. And this culture, a novelty in the history of the human race, is likely to have extraordinary social and political consequences. What will life be like when a growing plurality of men and women have no children, not because of war or famine, but amid unprecedented material abundance?
The decline of marital love and the rise in childlessness that are occurring in South Korea can happen anywhere. In my lifetime, fertility has been falling almost everywhere in the industrialized world, though South Korea leads the way. Present analysis suggests that the average South Korean woman will have 0.79 children in her lifetime. This number marks a significant decline in a very short time: In 2017, South Korea’s total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.05. East Asian countries have the world’s lowest TFRs: Japan’s is 1.4, Singapore’s 1.1, Taiwan’s 0.98, and Hong Kong’s 0.87, all following extraordinary declines in recent decades.
In South Korea, the decline in TFR tracks with declines both in marriage rates and in interest in the sexual dance between men and women. The average age of marriage for South Korean women is above thirty-one. The average South Korean child is born to a woman who is older than thirty-three. In 1970, fewer than 2 percent of Korean women between the ages of thirty and thirty-four were unmarried; today, more than 30 percent are. More than 40 percent of South Koreans below the age of forty have stopped dating. The Korea Development Institute reports that, in 2020, more than 52 percent of South Koreans in their twenties preferred a childless marriage, up from about 30 percent in 2015. More than 30 percent of all Korean households comprise only one person. I could go on.
Relations between the sexes are broken—and as fewer couples form, fewer babies are born. In 2012, the American feminist Hanna Rosin wrote of East Asia’s “industrial-scale sexual indifference.” But she seemed confident that the attractiveness of marital love would overcome this indifference. Quite the opposite has occurred. The decline in rates of birth and marriage has only accelerated.
According to a certain way of thinking, this should not be happening. South Koreans remain socially conservative in many respects. Among South Koreans, childbearing is still very much connected to marriage. Around 2 percent of children are born out of wedlock, compared to recent estimates of 40 percent in the United States. South Koreans value family honor. The country does not legally recognize same-sex marriage, nor do majorities “accept” homosexuality. South Koreans have sex later than most people do: The average age for women is above twenty-four years, and for men nearly twenty-two, according to a recent study in the World Journal of Men’s Health.
South Korea used to be fecund. As the 1950s became the 1960s, a South Korean woman gave birth to an average of about six children in her lifetime. Marriage rates were very high. On average, at the beginning of the 1960s, women were married at the age of twenty-one (up from seventeen in the 1940s).
How did such a fecund and socially conservative country turn into a sterile country in just two generations? How was this revolution accomplished in the absence of a libertine attitude toward sex? The short answer is: government policy and an all-out cultural campaign.
South Korea’s leadership under Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a military coup in May 1961, hoped for women to have fewer children so that the nation might thrive. The hope was realized. As Matthew Connelly documents in his Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, reducing population growth brought a “demographic dividend.” Investments flowed into industry as less money was needed for schools. More women could enter the workplace since fewer were mothering large broods.
Park repudiated the unification policy of South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, in favor of a policy accepting permanent division between North and South Korea. South Korea had to become richer and more powerful in order to protect its future, and this imperative required immediate economic growth. Park anticipated that fertility decline would improve South Korea’s international situation, as had happened in other East Asian countries and Pakistan.
To reduce South Korea’s birth rate, Park’s government spread a contraceptive mentality and punished childbearing. In its early years, the government placed family planning units in every hospital; promoted vasectomy procedures and the use of condoms and jellies; conducted nationwide training for physicians in new family planning technologies; tripled the number of family planning bureaucrats; and trained physicians in IUD insertion techniques. A family planning bureaucracy was created in the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and in 1961 the government established Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea, a conduit for international aid and domestic propaganda. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, longtime advocates of population control, funded advanced Western training to accomplish these goals, including by providing funds to incentivize sterilization.
As the contraceptive infrastructure grew, so did cultural efforts to reduce the population. Koreans traditionally supported “money clubs,” which dispensed money to needy families within local communities. The central government and its allies repurposed Money Clubs as Mothers’ Clubs, wherein local female leaders assisted social workers in the government’s efforts to encourage younger women to use contraception. Mothers’ Clubs channeled family planning information and supplies to willing users. South Korea’s Planned Parenthood assisted in the implementation, while the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations provided personnel, pills, and promotional materials. There were more than 12,500 Mothers’ Clubs in 1968, with an average of twenty-three members each; that number ballooned to more than 27,000 in 1976, with more than thirty members each.
Oral contraception was introduced in 1967; abortion was legalized in 1973; tube-tying was normalized in 1976. Park’s government and its successors created incentives for families to have fewer children. In 1974, child tax exemptions were limited to the first three children—then, in 1977, to the first two. In 1984, education subsidies were likewise limited to the first two children. Those sterilized under national programs received priority placement in public housing, better government-sponsored loans for housing, and more income support. Governments provided tax exemptions and public funding for abortions, vasectomies, tube-tying, and oral contraception.
Just as Americans today never stop hearing that “love is love,” South Koreans were inundated with messaging that emphasized “quality over quantity.” The sloganeering began with “three children, three years apart, stop at age thirty-five,” but turned into “just have two and raise them well,” and then “even two is a lot!” South Korea’s public philosophy, not initially informed by the principles of modern feminism or the sexual revolution, emphasized the trials and costs of parenthood in order to encourage fewer people to become parents and people to become parents of fewer.
Decades of propaganda accomplished the “transformation” of South Korea inaugurated by Park. In the 1960s, TFR fell from 6 to 4.4 and reached 1.6 by 1988, a 74-percent drop in twenty-eight years. People left the villages in droves. In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today it is among the richest. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by an average of 8 percent per year from 1962 to 1989. In some years, GDP expanded by more than 20 percent. South Korea’s manufacturing sector boomed, accounting for more than 30 percent of the country’s economic activity by 1987. The fact that fertility was declining while productivity and wealth were expanding seemed to vindicate South Korea’s plan.
South Korea and other East Asian countries were following in the footsteps of Pakistan and India, which had adopted national family planning programs in the 1950s. Population control was all the rage worldwide in these decades, though few countries enjoyed such terrific results as South Korea. In 1995, several authors at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs declared South Korea’s population policy a great success, especially in “bringing about attitude changes in society and economic changes in the status of women, including . . . [an increase] in participation of women in the labor force.” The report was written so that other nations might emulate South Korea’s example.
South Korea’s turn from natalism to anti-natalism did not arise from a feminist movement. Far from it. A key figure in South Korea’s social conservatism is the “tiger mom,” who expends great time and energy ensuring that her one or two children will make their family proud. Tiger moms are products of small urban families—in other words, of the late-modern Korean family. Investments in education, foreign travel, and chess lessons are accompanied by intense, demanding maternal oversight. The expense of childrearing increases apace. This approach to motherhood is suited to people who believe in clear gender roles, have a strong sense of family honor, and uphold the connection between marriage and parenthood.
The moral dominance of the tiger mom is legendary, and yet many of her children have come to despise it. After decades of the official dishonor accorded to motherhood, feminism naturally exerts its appeal. Indeed, South Korean feminism is more an effect of anti-natalism than a cause of it. What will women do if they are not having children? Answer: work and play.
Protections for this new kind of woman have followed. The late 1980s and 1990s witnessed an intense pursuit of first- and second-wave feminist goals in South Korea. In 1990, property and inheritance laws changed to allow women to be heads of households. Since female babies were being aborted disproportionately, sex-selective abortion was discouraged and then made punishable by three years’ imprisonment. Bans on sex discrimination in employment were passed in 1987, and understandings of what constitutes “discrimination” have expanded, just as in the West, ever since.
Slowly, South Korean governments came to worry that anti-natal measures had gone too far. When the country’s TFR approached 1.25 in the late 2000s, government officials partly reversed course. Penalties for large families were scaled back, then replaced with incentives for larger ones. Since 2008, South Korea’s government has doled out more than $200 billion on monthly cash allowances for parents. Recently, the South Korean government has allocated more than $700 million annually in clumsy efforts to encourage matchmaking and marriage. But no pro-natal propaganda—“More than one is twice the fun!”—has been employed.
South Korea’s fertility and marriage rates have recently dipped below anything before seen in human history. TFR has undergone a 20-percent drop, from very low rates (1.05 TFR in 2017) to the lowest of low rates (0.79), in just four years. The number of marriages fell by a remarkable 9.8 percent between 2020 and 2021. This decline caps a long-term trend. South Korea’s marriage rate was 10.6 marriages per one thousand people in 1980; today it is 3.8.
Why haven’t the reversals in financial incentives brought about reversals in birth rates? Part of the answer lies in South Korea’s battle of the sexes, which is getting ugly. Young men are turning against feminist ideology: Surveys show that nearly 60 percent of South Korean men under thirty oppose feminism, with 26 percent strongly opposing it. Voting chasms have opened up between young women and young men, with almost 60 percent of men under thirty supporting the new anti-feminist People Power Party, and 64 percent of similarly aged women supporting the feminist party. Stark but smaller gaps exist between men and women in their thirties.
The recently elected president, Yoon Suk Yeol, supported by radicalized young men in his ascent to the country’s highest office, plans to shutter the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, claiming that its work is mostly finished. Western diplomats are, of course, apoplectic. Efforts to abolish the ministry come, in the words of one writer, “at a time when South Korea is facing a population and gender crisis that has been years in the making.” Progressive forces have countered with an anti-self-care (or “escape the corset”) movement: short hair, no makeup, celebrations of obesity. Animosities between men and women seem to be increasing, making “industrial-scale sexual indifference” look good by comparison. How bad is it? South Korea recently dropped its ban on importing sex dolls.
What began as an effort to achieve national greatness through population control has ended up promoting cultural conflict between men and women and threatening national suicide through population decline. The moral transformation of South Korea, unleashed by Park and abetted by his successors, is not easily halted. If the prevailing consensus is that two kids are a lot, then it’s very easy to conclude that even one child places an unbearable strain on adults who might otherwise enjoy the fruits of material prosperity. Best to have none. And marriage itself can be a trial. In retrospect, the dynamic is easy to see. Diminishing the honor attached to motherhood has the effect of creating a new kind of woman—and correspondingly a new kind of man. Neither will be terribly interested in making marriage or parenthood central to her or his life.
The Western elite blame South Korea’s birth dearth on its halfway embrace of lax modern sexual and familial norms. As causes for South Korea’s low fertility, a study published under the RAND Corporation identified “gender inequality”—the failure to embrace feminist goals fully—and “evolving familial structures and norms”—code for a still-incomplete acceptance of non-marital arrangements for men and women and for South Korea’s failure to embrace same-sex marriage. This explanation seems questionable. After all, in 1960 South Korea had off-the-charts TFR and marriage rates, even as its social consensus remained decidedly traditional.
Western progressives who seek to address the declines in fertility that threaten to destabilize advanced economies exhibit a distinctive way of thinking. A 2014 study distinguishes between “strong familism” and “weak familism.” Strong familism unites marriage and childbirth, while discouraging cohabitation and sex outside of marriage and reinforcing traditional sex roles. This social consensus leads to low birth rates in the modern context (between 1.3 and 1.7 TFR in countries that combine strong familism with an advanced economy). The guiding notion is that since strong familism allows only one avenue for kids, countries in East Asia and Southern Europe that exhibit strong familism have fewer kids.
By contrast, weak familism, characteristic of Scandinavian countries, produces somewhat higher birth rates (1.7–2.1 TFR) because it authorizes a range of family types, traditional and non-traditional, in the context of which reproduction can take place. Countries with weak familism generally accept cohabitation, use childcare and daycare, and encourage egalitarian sex roles. The idea is that if women can have children without sacrificing their careers, or can have children outside of marriage, then they will have more children. Thus the study’s conclusion: Demanding cultural expectations dampen fertility; feminist cultural expectations are less anti-natal. If advanced economies want to avoid demographic catastrophe, they need to become more progressive.
By this way of thinking, attaining higher fertility in South Korea would require a more thorough destruction of what remains of that country’s social conservatism. South Korea’s government should roll out nationally funded daycare, take measures to decrease the gender pay gap, and embrace feminist ambitions by broadening sexual harassment laws. The culture needs to detach marriage from procreation by encouraging procreative sex outside of marriage. Adopting same-sex marriage might help, as well. It worked in Scandinavia. It is working in the United States and United Kingdom, too, or so we are told.
But is it? TFR in weak-familism countries is declining below the “low but stable” markers of a decade ago. The TFR of some Scandinavian countries is not much better than that of some East Asian and Southern European countries. Japan, a strong-familism country, has a TFR of 1.34, which mirrors weak-familism Finland’s TFR of 1.37.
Sweden, Norway, and Denmark do have higher TFRs than the East Asian countries. But this difference is partly explained by immigration. Compared to other Scandinavian countries, these three have relatively large populations of Muslims, a minority group that exhibits high fertility. (In Sweden, more than 8 percent of the population is Muslim; in Norway and Denmark, around 5.5 percent is.) By contrast, Finland has both low TFR and Scandinavia’s lowest level of Muslim immigration. Demographers speculate that Muslim immigration probably gives Sweden a TFR boost of 0.25 or 0.3, and Norway and Denmark a boost of 0.2. Sweden’s TFR of 1.85 probably falls to 1.60 or so among native Swedes. Something similar obtains in the United States, where demographers observe that newcomers (though mostly non-Muslim) have higher rates of fertility than the native-born.
Proponents of weak familism are not entirely wrong. Scandinavian culture and progressivism’s imperative of “inclusion” appear to discourage motherhood and fatherhood less than does the social consensus in East Asia. Of course, it is difficult to know whether credit should go to weak familism as such, or to other factors unique to Scandinavia or to East Asia. In any event, Sweden’s progressive laws and mores have allowed for a better modus vivendi between the sexes than obtains in South Korea, one that sustains a less bad TFR.
Is the Swedish model viable elsewhere? Swedish singles have children, but American singles have far fewer. In spite of America’s culturally progressive rhetoric and policies, marriage and childbirth remain relatively connected in the United States. Because of this cultural link between marriage and fertility, the United States is likely to go down a path similar to South Korea’s.
Anti-natalist cultural messaging in the United States is not programmatic, but it is powerful. American girls are taught to delay marriage and motherhood, not for the nation’s sake, but for the sake of their independence. They are encouraged to attend college and find gainful employment before they consider marrying and having children. They are discouraged from being dependent on any man. No one warns of the biological clock; every regime outlet peddles the half-truth that women can wait until their late thirties to have children. According to a Pew poll, 88 percent of parents want their children to be financially independent and to have rewarding jobs or careers; only 21 percent say that getting married is important. Marriage is regarded as a capstone to a career of striving, not the foundation of a life well lived.
Current statistics indicate that a quarter of American women who enter their forties in the coming decade will be unmarried and childless. It’s likely, therefore, that America’s TFR will sink. Just as Scandinavia depends on Muslim immigration to prop up TFR, so America currently depends on the religiously observant and practitioners of relatively strong familism. Among secular Americans, TFR is just north of 1.25 and dropping rapidly. As more American women remain unmarried, more remain childless. In fact, according to Lyman Stone, “rising childlessness is the entire cause of falling U.S. fertility. For people who have kids, they’re having about the same number as they have had for a long time.” Stone notes that America’s least religious women have fertility rates that would not be out of place in strong-familism countries such as Hong Kong, Japan, Portugal, and Greece.
Most social scientists in the United States are progressives. The notion that weak familism—further advances in the transformation of the social consensus concerning sex, marriage, family, and sex roles, along with expansion of the government infrastructure to support working women—will reverse population decline is catnip to them. We have not gone far enough! But data suggest otherwise. The combination of a consumer-driven economy with a libertarian-inflected view of moral norms concerning male-female relations may accelerate, not retard, our demographic convergence with East Asian countries.
Some look to an ever-expanding immigration regime. We can import the people we are not bringing into the world through childbirth! The more futurist among us envision artificial means of producing children. In many ways, this prospect is the logical endpoint of weak familism, since it detaches children from male-female relations altogether, making them available to whoever wishes to have them at whatever stage of life.
So, perhaps there are ways to “solve” the problem of declining TFR. But these solutions ignore the social and cultural peril that awaits societies that are no longer organized around the age-old task of uniting men and women, bringing children into the world, and raising them. It is sobering to note that American men are acquiring attitudes toward feminism that track those of South Korean men. Sixty-two percent of younger Republican men and 46 percent of younger Democratic men think that “feminism has done more harm than good,” according to a poll released by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Only 42 percent of older Republican men and 4 percent of older Democratic men hold such views. This suggests a remarkable souring of male–female relations. From the perspective of younger men, American feminism, by making American women quick to play the victim or to blame men for their woes, makes them less lovable. From women’s perspective, men who lack ambition or strength—two qualities that feminism arguably censures in men—are unappealing. The rise in lesbianism among younger women suggests that they are, indeed, ever less interested in our men.
The decline of childbearing has political manifestations as well. Recent elections show that unmarried women vote differently than do married men, unmarried men, and married women. When more than a quarter of women reach their forties without having children, they are likely to form a voting bloc with interests profoundly out of alignment with those of the rest of the population. Nor is it unthinkable that an anti-feminist political party might arise in America, as has happened in South Korea. There seems to be a constituency for such a party, and American men are not without legitimate grievances. We may be on the cusp of a political polarization far more fundamental than that of red states against blue states. Perhaps it will not come to pass. But of this we can be certain: A combination of economic prosperity and cultural change is producing a constituency that is childless by choice—and its size and importance are unprecedented in human history.
South Korea offers a cautionary tale. What was destroyed partly through financial incentives cannot be rebuilt by a reversal of those incentives. “Human beings are not piano keys,” as the Underground Man says in Dostoevsky’s novel. They are moved by considerations beyond economics. South Korea did more than deploy economic incentives. In the name of national greatness, its government and elite institutions systematically dismantled an old family-centered culture. The regime created a new sexual constitution in which barrenness was praised and large families were shamed and punished. It dishonored the woman interested in motherhood and created a new woman in her place, one more committed to work and consumption and less interested in marriage and motherhood. It championed vasectomies, tube-tying, abortion, and contraception, while singling out the very real pains and struggles of parenthood, all with the aim of discouraging reproduction. It remained silent about the joys and fulfillments of family life and the importance of family to a life well lived. In the early stages of this cultural project, the regime encouraged mutual suspicion between the sexes. In the latest stages, progressive forces promote ugliness and obesity, themes unlikely to encourage men and women to join together. A modification of financial incentives, as South Korea has begun to attempt, will not salvage this sexual ecosystem.
Parenthood is full of burdens and duties; not everyone has the character and ambition to take them on. Law and culture can encourage people to take on such burdens and duties—or discourage them. Law and culture can promote trust between the sexes—or sow suspicion. And sexual attraction itself is malleable. Honoring same-sex attraction above opposite-sex attraction and creating environments in which homosexuals receive special protection and encouragement will cause more people to identify as gay, as current polling indicates. In these and many other ways, a legal and cultural regime can diminish the desire for children.
This may seem impossible. Throughout the ages, childbearing has been at the center of female identity, and childlessness has been a painful curse. Now, among growing portions of our advanced population, the curse is reversed. Are nature and instinct not strong enough to ensure the future of the human race?
The answer seems to be no. TFR is falling everywhere. No advanced country except Israel seems able to sustain a pro-natal culture. A lowering tide is lowering almost all boats and giving rise to reasonable (and some unreasonable) suspicions that something is poisoning us—perhaps the Covid vaccines. Or perhaps the problem is a lowering of testosterone and sperm counts, traceable to plastics or seed oils.
The truth is that honor matters, far more than any chemical in our environment and far more than any set of financial incentives. In South Korea, a propaganda campaign effected a great shift away from family life. In most countries in the West, the campaign has been less coordinated, but perhaps even more effective for being spontaneous and pervasive. We will not restore children to the center of our society’s ideal of a life well lived until we reverse our cultural messaging—not just about children, but about the entire range of issues that touch upon what it means to be man and woman. The image of woman with motherhood near the center of her life is vital for our future, if we want to have one.