A pram too far: Faced with overwhelming pressures, South Korean women have gone on baby-strike

A pram too far: Faced with overwhelming pressures, South Korean women have gone on baby-strike

Oct 26th 2013 |From the print edition


WHEN MOTHERS SAW Park Chan-hee pushing his young daughter’s pram in the park, they assumed he was unemployed. At the playground on weekdays, he was the only man amid the watchful women and laughing children. Mr Park spent a year as a stay-at-home dad, which he found harder than doing his military service. After his wife’s maternity leave expired, she returned to her job at an agricultural co-operative and he left his position as a museum curator. His male friends thought his decision odd. His parents did not even try to understand, nor did they tell their friends. In their minds, he was reneging on his duty to provide for his family. His wife’s parents, on the other hand, thought their daughter was “blessed”.Men like Mr Park are rare in South Korea, rare enough to turn heads in parks. The idea of the dutiful mother retains currency. Whereas Yulgok, a prominent Confucian scholar, is celebrated on the back of the 5,000-won note, his mother appears on the 50,000-won note, the highest denomination.

Mothers with young children spend nearly five times as long looking after their family and home as fathers do, calculates Jayoung Yoon of the Korea Labour Institute. But at least the ratio is getting better. In 2009 men gave about half an hour a day more of their time to domestic chores than they had done ten years earlier, and women shaved off roughly 20 minutes. In the Korean sex wars, the front line moves slowly.


The burden of child-rearing poses a formidable obstacle to women’s professional ambitions. Women in their 20s now have higher labour-force participation rates than men, but many drop out in their 30s. They typically return in their mid-40s, though often not to the kinds of corporate jobs they held down before marriage. Instead they work for themselves or their families, often with lower pay and perks (see chart 1).

The faster a country develops, the greater the mismatch between men’s expectations of a wife and women’s career hopes, argues Jisoo Hwang, a PhD candidate at Harvard University. Men learn from their mothers what to expect from their wives. If their mother had a paid job, they think it natural for their wife to do the same. If their mother stayed at home to raise them, they expect their wife to do likewise.

Thanks to South Korea’s rapid development, pay and prospects for today’s wives are far better than their mothers’ were at a similar age. The opportunity cost of being a housewife is thus far greater. Yet a newly married man’s expectations of his wife will be heavily influenced by the housewifely duties his mother performed. His attitudes are one generation behind. In South Korea that is an eternity. “There are not enough modern men for the newly educated women to marry,” Ms Hwang concludes.

Besides, even modern men would have trouble finding enough time to spend with their children. South Koreans still work some of the longest hours in the OECD, 18% above the average. And by tradition, they spend many evenings in boozy bonding sessions with their bosses and colleagues. Adding paid and unpaid work together, a father’s working day is only 25 minutes shorter than a mother’s.

Firms oblige men to work punishing hours; men then heap all the household duties they do not have time for on their wives. The arrangement suits employers, who prefer a longer working week to a higher headcount, argue Randall Jones and Satoshi Urasawa of the OECD. It may also suit some men, who find the office more congenial than the nursery. And even if it does not, most do not feel able to stand up to their employers’ unreasonable demands. Instead, they make unreasonable demands on their wives—who have responded by going on baby-strike.

The average South Korean woman now waits until after her 29th birthday to marry and after her 30th to start a family. Some women never do either. The chances of their never marrying have risen from 9% in 2000 to 15% today. And South Korea’s fertility rate, now at 1.3 children per woman, has remained stubbornly low.

The fundamental problem of child-rearing in South Korea is too few children, too much rearing

Many South Koreans say they would like more children. According to a survey by the Hyundai Research Institute, 58% of adults want two children and 13.5% want three. If parents had their wish, South Korea’s fertility rate would be more like 1.8 than 1.3, but most of them could not afford that.

The baby-strike has narrowed inequality between the sexes, giving women more freedom to pursue their careers. But it has set the stage for a different kind of social injustice between those with and without children. When the childless retire, they will rely on the labour of the next generation to provide for them. Even if they have saved for their own pension, most of what they buy with their retirement funds will be produced by the working generation of the day. But the childless will not have contributed much to the cost of raising that generation. Parents, by raising the next generation of workers, are helping to make everyone’s retirement more comfortable. The South Korean government has recognised this by promising more generous pensions to women with more than one child.

The government is exploring two other solutions to the baby-strike. One is to make it easier for working parents to look after their own children by extending parental leave and shortening the working week. The other is to offer help with getting someone else to look after the children.

By law the longest that South Korean firms can now ask their employees to work is 40 hours a week plus 12 hours of overtime. Violations are still rampant: a recent government inspection found that almost 87% of manufacturing workplaces failed to stick to the overtime limit. But hours are falling, even among the self-employed to whom the new restrictions do not apply, report Messrs Jones and Urasawa.

In your dreams

The government will also encourage men to take a “father’s month” off from work. But few men take even the leave to which they are already entitled. Parents with young children can take up to a year off on reduced pay. Last year 62,000 women but only 1,790 men took child-care leave. Most worry that their absence will damage their career and their relationships with colleagues. “It’s not fair to blame individuals,” says Mr Park. First the culture has to change, then the policy can follow.

The government aims to provide public child care for 30% of children by 2017. It is also doling out generous contributions to private care. Since March this year it has paid allowances to everyone with a child under six. Mr Park paid nothing for the seven hours of daily care his daughter received last year. Parents who do not use child care get a monthly “home-care” allowance.

In some areas, such as Seoul, local government is already reeling under the cost of this policy. The city is issuing 200 billion won of municipal bonds to fill the hole in its budget. However, professional child care helps the economy in two ways. The first benefit derives from comparative advantage. The use of specialised child-care services allows a mother to devote her talents to whatever she does best. The second stems from economies of scale. In a crèche one adult can take care of four or five toddlers; in a kindergarten, one person can look after 15. This frees up their parents to do something more productive. The economy as a whole will gain.

Mr Park notes that the South Korean media have recently begun to highlight the role of fathers in child-rearing, but he feels they are missing the point. Magazines report that engaged fathers help their children become more sociable and better “leaders”. They are urging fathers to roll their sleeves up not so much to ease their wives’ burden but to sharpen the child’s competitive edge.

This competitive spirit may be the chief reason why fertility is so low. South Koreans feel they have to invest huge amounts of time and money to help their child succeed. The cost of education in particular is forbidding. The fundamental problem of child-rearing in South Korea is too few children, too much rearing.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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