Fathers Outgrow Confucian Law, Save South Korea's Birth Rate?



Confucian law or tradition is deeply interwoven in Korean society culturally and socially. Although Confucian ethics in South Korean society today may not be as strong as they were in the past, some still linger around, particularly with dividing labor in the family by gender. It enforced a stigma persisting men as less nurturing and domestically adept than women, to be entitled as breadwinners, while household work and child rearing on the latter. But as the nation’s cost of living rose, especially with childcare expenses, clubbed with the competitive nature of its corporate landscape, requiring men and women’s contribution at work, leaving minimal time to raise a family, hesitancy to bear children began to sprout. Eventually, these aspects weighed down South Korea’s childbirth rate.

This year, South Korea’s fertility rate dipped to a new low of 0.7 in the second quarter. Statistics Korea indicated a 6.8 percent decrease with 56,087 newborn babies in the second quarter of this year. It has been the lowest since 2009 and marks 91 months of constant decline in the birth rate. The report says that the population has been reducing for 43 consecutive months, with June alone bearing 18,615 newborns and deaths rising at 26,820. The report further warns of the current trends’ potential to widen the gaping decline in the fertility rate this year.

Under the current trends, South Korea’s elderly dependency ratio is projected to be the highest among OECD countries in 2075 at 79 percent. That means the number of working-age persons per elderly person could fall from 4.5 in 2020 to less than 1.3 persons in 2075. This could have a significant economic, social, and fiscal impact with a burden to provide long-term healthcare to elderly individuals.

As a result, an aging, shrinking workforce could mean a fatal blow in labor supply. Fewer people equal a negative impact on business operations. Employees in larger companies with better salaries may be in a much safer zone than those from small and medium enterprises with lower wages, harsher working conditions, and fewer unions to protect their rights with negotiations with the management. Companies like these appear less attractive to young talents who could start to have a dead-set attitude to join larger corporations or choose unemployment after graduation than to go through such an ordeal. Thus, these issues arise from the grassroots level.

But worry not; a few dads are changing the stigma around child-rearing responsibilities by lifting the burden that is mostly entrusted to moms.

Changing Patterns of Fatherhood - Eye Opener to Societal Stereotypes about Work and Parenthood

Today, a few fathers are stepping out to fight norms around child rearing by taking paternity leave to equally participate alongside mothers to take care of family responsibilities. Applying for paternity leave is viewed as a bold move in Confucian-ingrained countries such as South Korea as it could change the treatment of society, particularly from people at work towards new-age fathers.

Placing Priority - Child or Career

On a surface level, taking paternity leave could get you ill looks from co-workers, promotions and pay raises being held, and eventually being perceived as being less committed to work. Is it worth the risk? The answer depends on where the priority is placed, whether work is more important than family or creating memories holds more value that money can’t buy.

Choosing Children is Risky and Rewarding

To the bold fathers taking the gamble, one could certainly say that it does come with a lot of benefits. It helps you to have more bonding time with your kids and create memories, even if it happens to be a newborn who is unlikely to remember it later. This is helpful, especially when there are no caretakers or babysitters, and your child will be the latchkey kid left alone at home, which could even make turning on the microwave a dangerous situation. Hence, engaging in parenting could strike three chords at once, which are the child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development.

Looking at the statistics, the Ministry of Employment and Labor indicates that 131,087 people in 2022 took paid leave, with men accounting for 37,885, or 28.9 percent.


This shows that men who take paternity leave are still in the minority despite being entitled to the longest period of childcare leave.

Longest Paternity Leave but Hesitancy Lingers

South Korea boasts the longest paternity leave in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), but only a few percent of fathers take it. Besides, many Scandinavian countries have rolled out a ‘father’s quota’ system, which includes non-transferrable leave specifically for fathers. This has helped achieve 40 percent of parental leave takers being fathers. There have been improvements in South Korea, with a 30 percent increase in fathers taking parental leave. A big chunk of this development tends to be from the workers in the public sector, as government employees are bound to ministry policies.

Reason – Gender Wage Gaps

Additionally, gender wage gaps prove to be a hardship for fathers seeking time to look after their young. This is due to labor participation by women in South Korea being 53 percent, while it's 72 percent for men, with the former earning wages worth 65.6 percent more than their counterparts. This makes it worse for single-income families, and if at all they have to, it is always the mother who takes a career break and puts an end to her earning power as a woman. Large companies are better at accommodating parental leave thanks to abundant resources, whereas small and medium-sized companies that makeup 82 percent of employment in South Korea have fewer resources and funds to deal with this issue.

The pace of Improvement is Gradual

Little hope from the public sector and government initiatives do promise gradual upliftment, such as providing an increase in the allowance for parents with children under the age of a year. There are also plans to improve childcare services, provide housing for newlyweds, and cut healthcare expenses for young kids. Even the entertainment industry is lending a hand through its men’s babysitting television program, ‘The Return of Superman.’ Running for a decade now, the program features celebrity fathers taking care of their kids on their own by going through their wives’ to-do lists, who seldom have time to interact with their children. Thus far, experts say the show seems to have a positive effect on the mindset of the people around gender roles, and women entering the paid workforce are gradually turning modern-day fathers into more active parents. As a result, the number of dual-income families is growing to 5.84 million in October 2022, up 20,000 from a year earlier, according to data released by Statistics Korea. However, the number of dual-income households with children in the same period was 2.16 million, down 79,000 from 2021.

Change to Start from the Mind

Looking at the long-term, there is a long way to go, which is actually helpful in encouraging women to have children thanks to men’s gradual pivot to take off to involve themselves in child-rearing activities.

Although conditions for parental leave have improved in length and payment, the stigma prevents many parents from exercising their benefits. The Confucian culture tells women to take care of children at home while men make money at work and cannot blend in with today’s reality of both parents going to work. Ultimately, it is a mental battle between the needs of the family and societal benefits.

Current Issue