Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Marriage and babies

SOUTH KOREA isn't having enough babies. In fact, it has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Rapid modernisation and a grueling work culture have led women to ditch the Pampers for PDAs. A pensions time-bomb is ticking and a gentrified workforce is waiting in the wings. It is a major, major problem for the future of Korean society and the economy.

Girl after girl I've spoken to here has left me with the impression that isn't likely to change any time soon. Why? Because they have no desire to get married - in Korea that is. One of the girls from my Korean class explained to me that married life for women in Korea is neither blissful nor serene. She said she has seen the sacrifices her mother has made, and she isn't willing to make them too.

Family is hugely important in this country. Almost everyone lives with their parents until they are married. The eldest child in the family is expected to look after his or her parents in their old age until they pass away. Once you are married, you can expect your in-laws to become part of your family to a far more meaningful degree than in the west. They don't just visit on weekends. They become part of your life. Some married couples live with the bride's in-laws.

My teaching friend said that she didn't want to have to please her future husbands' parents and constantly win their approval. She said she didn't want to have to give up her career to have a child, and that almost all but the major companies in Korea would fire her were she to get pregnant. She wants to move to the U.S. and marry a foreigner.

A few days later I met another girl who told me the same thing. A few days after that, yet another girl still said the very same to me and added, rather bizarrely, that she wanted a mixed-race baby.

The younger generation of women aren't prepared to put up with the hardship their parents endured. They have designer handbags and smart phones, and cash in their pockets. They aren't as conservative as their parent's view of marriage requires them to be. For many of them, the West seems tantalizingly free. Already, many Korean farmers import brides from Vietnam and the Philippines because they can't find a Korean wife. Less and less Korean women are willing to live a rural life and mind the family home.

Until it is made easier for women to have children and hold down a job, and their perception of marriage changes from something oppressive and to a partnership of equals, Korea's low birthrate will never rise.

And a generation of bright, beautiful, young women will be Korea's loss and the United States' gain.

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