Cutting work hours for more babies
I BECAME a grandfather in March. My daughter, who got married two years ago, gave birth to a lovely baby boy. These days, I feel that a newborn is a blessing not just to its parents and the nation, but to its grandparents.
My daughter began to entrust her baby to a neighbourhood care centre in late August because she had to go back to work. She wanted to stay at home with her baby for a few more months, but her company insisted on her prompt return.
My daughter's return to work made her mother busy. As she goes to work before the nursery opens, her mother has to take care of the infant for about two hours in the morning before taking him to the care centre.
My wife also picks up the baby in the afternoon and looks after him for about three hours before his mother or father comes home from work.
My daughter is fortunate as her mother lives nearby and is willing to babysit the infant during her absence - a luxury that many working mothers do not enjoy.
Still, she says juggling work and motherhood is much more difficult than she thought. So, to my great disappointment, she has vowed to never have another baby.
My daughter's case suggests that the government's numerous programmes geared towards raising South Korea's woefully low birthrate is not so effective in encouraging working mums to have multiple babies.
My daughter does benefit from the government's subsidy programme, which covers the entire cost of sending her baby to the nursery. But this incentive is obviously not enough to persuade her - and probably many other working mums - to have more babies.
SHORTER WORK HOURS FOR MORE BABIES
Observing my daughter trying to juggle her job and her new baby, I felt strongly the need to shorten work hours to boost South Korea's anaemic birthrate, which now stands at 1.21, the lowest in the world aside from in places such as Hong Kong and Macau.
In many companies, especially small ones, employees usually work longer than the standard 40 hours per week. Long work hours stress out working mums and dads, forcing them to decide not to have a second or third child.
It is not just working mums and dads who are burned out. Long hours at work also deprive young single male and female employees of the time and energy needed for dating or thinking about marriage.
Therefore, as long as working late hours remains the norm, it is hard to expect any significant rise in the nation's fertility rate.
Long work hours also contribute to lowering the level of life satisfaction among South Koreans. According to the How's Life 2015 report recently published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea ranked 27th among the 34 member countries in life satisfaction.
The OECD report assesses various indicators, including health status and work-life balance, to compare the level of well-being among its members.
To our shame, South Korea ranked lowest in terms of the time that parents spend with their kids. Parents spend only 48 minutes a day with their children, less than one-third of the OECD average of 151 minutes.
In particular, the report found that South Korean fathers spend far less time playing with their children than their peers in other countries. They merely spend six minutes a day with their children in teaching and recreational activities, about one-eighth of the OECD average of 47 minutes.
If parents spent less time in the workplace, they will be able to spend more time with their children, which will boost the well-being of not just the kids, but also the parents.
Cutting work hours is thus essential to boosting the birthrate and improving the quality of life. But the task is often said to be much more difficult than amending the Constitution.
CALL FOR GENDER EQUALITY
Last month, however, representatives of labour, management and the government managed to agree to shorten the maximum work hours per week from the current 68 to 52.
Yet it remains to be seen when the agreement will be spelled out in law and, if enacted, whether it will be strictly observed by companies.
The issue of reducing work hours illustrates the magnitude of work required to boost the birthrate. It requires reforms across all sectors of Korean society.
In the absence of such broad reforms, it is little wonder that the government has achieved no significant progress in its efforts to reverse the falling birthrate.
Since 2006, the government has poured more than 120 trillion won (S$148 billion) into an ever-lengthening list of incentive programmes. Yet the fertility rate has merely edged up from 1.19 to 1.21.
The government's latest package of measures announced earlier this week was not much different from the previous ones. It enumerates various incentives, but it lacks any initiatives for far-reaching reforms.
Policymakers need to heed the view of Hans Rosling, a world health expert who recently visited South Korea to give a lecture.
The Swedish statistics guru advised South Korea to pursue gender equality in all aspects of society, saying that many Western countries saw their birthrates go up after implementing bold policies aimed at improving the status of women.
Dr Rosling painted an optimistic picture of South Korea's demographic future, saying that the nation would be able to find ways to avert the looming demographic catastrophe, in the light of its unprecedented growth trajectory.
But the big data expert's prediction would not come true unless South Korea introduces bolder family-friendly reforms that help working mothers balance work and family more easily.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK