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[Editorial] Demographic structure

Shrinking youth population sends a warning

Koreans have grown accustomed to concerns about the problems that will result from their country’s chronically low birthrate and rapidly aging population.

Data released last week, however, painted yet another gloomy ― and even more alarming ― picture of Korea’s demographic structure. According to figures from the national statistics office, the number of people aged 9-24 stood at 9.84 million this year, accounting for 19.5 percent of the total population, the lowest level ever.

The proportion of youths has been on a continuous decline since it peaked at 36.9 percent in 1978. Statistics Korea estimated the ratio would fall further to 16.3 percent in 2020, 13.5 percent in 2040 and 11.4 percent in 2060.

This forecast may still be too optimistic. It was based on the presumption that the country’s annual birthrate would remain at 1.42 on average for the coming decades. The government has been pushing for various measures to encourage married couples to have more babies, but it is far from guaranteed that such efforts will raise the birthrate, which decreased to 1.19 last year from the previous year’s 1.29.

Experts have warned that the low birthrate combined with the rapidly aging population would result in a shrinkage of the workforce, increasing the burden of welfare and undermining growth potential.

The projection that the proportion of youths in Korea’s population will hover around 10 percent should ring alarm bells more loudly, accelerating efforts to prevent the population structure from being further distorted.

A recent report by a local research institute predicted that the country’s demographic competitiveness would slide from 17th in 2010 to 21st in 2030 among the 29 OECD member countries surveyed. With the most competitive status at 1, the index for Korea was forecast to remain at 0.414 in 2030, slightly below that of Japan at 0.420, according to a study by the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade.

The negative impact of an aging population amid a decrease in the number of births will first be felt acutely in the country’s economic sectors before spreading to social areas. Thus, a full range of measures will be needed to cope with the deteriorating demographic competitiveness.

Government agencies and corporations should make concerted efforts to enhance labor productivity, keep high-skilled laborers in the workforce after the retirement age and improve the environment for child care.

In a trend suggesting that it may be more difficult to maintain the country’s demographic competitiveness, a majority of female youths in Korea see marriage as an option rather than a necessity. According to a recent government survey, only 45.6 percent of female respondents aged 9-24 said marriage was something they should do in life. Male respondents in the same age group had a more positive attitude toward marriage, with 62.9 percent hoping to walk down the aisle one day.

Improved conditions for child care and other measures to help balance work with family will be needed to ease young women’s reluctance to get married.

Korea also needs to be more active in accepting immigrants and more accommodating to children from multicultural families. While the overall youth population in the country has been on the decrease in recent years, the number of multicultural adolescents increased by more than 18 percent from the previous year to 55,789 in 2013. It should be kept in mind that building a harmonious multicultural society is required to shore up the country’s demographic competitiveness, which is the key to long-term, sustainable growth.