The Sampo Generation: Why We Are Seeing the Lowest Fertility Rate of All Time?

Greer Brodie-Hall

23 August, 2018



The Sampo generation, or the “three-giving up generation”, is the new title given to young South Koreans. What are they accused of giving up? Courtship, marriage, and most importantly, having children. South Korea officially has the lowest fertility rate in the world. As of 2017 the country was bearing 360 000 babies per year, which was the first time the country has ever been below 400 000 births. This has become a major concern around the globe for many obvious reasons.

Fertility rates have a direct ripple effect on numerous policy issues, including immigration, housing, labour supply, social safety net, welfare and support for the ageing population. It is predicted that by 2031 a quarter of Canadians will be 65 years or older. This could be a significant problem if the population does not replenish at the rate it must to ensure a stable workforce.

South Korea’s fertility rate, image courtesy of  BBC .

South Korea’s fertility rate, image courtesy of BBC.

Here is an example to analyze one of these problems more closely, a baby boomer’s concern lies in their wealth, which is situated in their homes. A Forbes analyst, Joseph Coughlin, proposes that millennials are less likely to purchase large homes built for big families due to their crippling student debt and fears of raising a family with the expenses attached. This, he argues, will consequently affect the older generation which could lose a large amount of their investment due to the younger generation’s apprehension about having children.

To demonstrate the severity in numbers, from 1960 to 2016, the birth rate on average in the world dropped from 4.9 children per woman to 2.4. The United States has fallen from 3.7 to 1.8, Canada from 3.8 to 1.6, Germany from 2.5 to 1.5, Italy from 2.4 to 1.4, and Japan from 2.0 to 1.4. Even Sweden, which is regarded as one of the developed countries with a better off fertility rate is still only at 1.9 per woman.

So, why are people, specifically women, having less children? People have proposed that it is due to the increase in contraceptives and abortions. When in fact, the abortion rate in the United States saw its lowest record at 14.6 per 1,000 women in 2014, lower than before Roe v. Wade. It is true, however, that the increase in use of contraceptives may have led to a partial reduction in the number of abortions.

Importantly, there is a major gap between the number of children women want (2.7) and the number they end up having (1.8). Reasons include wanting more leisure time and freedom, not having a partner yet, an inability to afford child care costs, not enough paid family leave and a perceived struggle between work and life. These concerns are apparent in many women that choose to prioritize their careers over family life in their 20s. The only age group that has seen a growth in fertility has been women over 40, which speaks to the desire to postpone parenthood.

The question remains, why do women feel they must postpone it? There is a direct relationship between what women feel they can accomplish with or without children. Women believe that career and family are mutually exclusive. According to Jang Yun-hwa, she does not want to have children because, “rather than be part of a family, I'd like to be independent and live alone and achieve my dreams.” She feels that men in her country look at women as their “slaves”. On average, a man spends 45 minutes on childcare while a South Korean woman spends nearly 5 times that. When asked about her responsibility to maintain the population, she replies that it is time for the male-dominated culture to go.

A comment like this stems from a perception that women are less likely to be given opportunities at work due to the assumption that they will take time off for a family, or be treated unequally after having children. There is an evident discrimination against women in the workplace around the world. From not being given enough paid leave, to the costly child care expenses (nearly $233,610 for 18 years in Canada), women are not encouraged to pursue a career and a family. This acknowledgement has lead numerous women to forgo having children until they have achieved the success they desire.

Despite living in a country that is now encouraging it’s population to have more children, Chinese employers are guilty of hiring women that already have children, denying pregnancy leave, or letting women go during pregnancy. Women around the world that have been able to climb the ladder tend to be single and childless. However, it is now becoming alarmingly clear that women are using their newfound autonomy to choose their lives first. There is an evident lack of support for working mothers, and this has directly affected the fertility rate. According to Phillip Cohen, “there are no high-fertility countries that are gender equal”.

This is a call to action for governments around the world to improve their family care policies and outdated social norms in order to encourage women to maintain the population size. Having children has steadily become a luxury many men and women cannot afford and do not want. As David Willetts puts it, “feminism is the new natalism,”. Giving women the tools to combine employment and family could be the key to increasing our falling population size. Until women are presented with the equal and deserving policies to maintain a job while being a mother, we will continue to see our populations slowly diminish.