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[News Focus] Korea’s youth population sees steepest fall among OECD members

SEJONG -- Fifty years ago, South Koreans aged 14 and under made up 42.5 percent of the population in the wake of the country’s 1955-1963 baby boom.

Korea ranked second in a retrospective comparison of the 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which looked back at youth populations relative to total country populations in 1970.

While Mexico topped the list for that year, with 46.8 percent of its population no older than 14, the majority of OECD members posted figures far below Korea’s. The youth population of Japan stood at 23.9 percent of the total, compared with 28.3 percent in the US and 24.1 percent in the UK.

But an OECD graph shows that Korea has recorded the steepest decline since that time in the proportion of its population that falls between the ages of zero and 14.

In 2005, the figure for Korea -- 19.2 percent -- fell below the OECD average of 19.4 percent for the first time.
President Moon Jae-in visits an elementary school in Seoul in April 2018. The sharp drop in the number of Koreans aged between zero and 14 corresponds with a steady fall in the number of students per classroom. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in visits an elementary school in Seoul in April 2018. The sharp drop in the number of Koreans aged between zero and 14 corresponds with a steady fall in the number of students per classroom. (Yonhap)

Since then, Korea’s youth population has continued to drop in proportion to the population as a whole and had fallen below 14.3 percent as of 2014 -- the most recent year for which comparison data is available from the Paris-based organization. It was the fourth-lowest percentage among the 36 OECD members.

The three countries that ranked lower than Korea on the basis of that 2014 data were Italy (14 percent), Germany (13.1 percent) and Japan (12-13 percent).

In contrast, the US and the UK saw their corresponding figures reach 19.2 percent and 17.8 percent, respectively. Many European countries, including Norway (18.1 percent) and Belgium (17 percent), were higher on the list than Korea.

Among the countries with figures of more than 20 percent were New Zealand (20.2 percent), Iceland (20.4 percent), Chile (20.6 percent), Ireland (22 percent), Turkey (24.4 percent) and Mexico (28 percent).

The situation has gotten even more serious in recent years: Young Koreans accounted for just 12.5 percent of the general population as of December 2019. The figure declined by 4.1 percentage points in a decade, having recorded 16.6 percent in December 2009.
(Graphic by Kim Sun-young/The Korea Herald)
(Graphic by Kim Sun-young/The Korea Herald)

It is estimated that Korea’s youth population, alongside Japan’s, hit its lowest level in proportion to the general population in late 2019 or early 2020.

The number of Koreans in the zero to 14 age group declined to 6.46 million in December 2019, from 7.25 million in December 2014 and 8.24 million in December 2009, though the total population continued to increase during the 2009-2019 period.

Their sharp reduction both in numbers and as a percentage of the population reflects the nation’s declining fertility rate, which means the number of expected children per woman aged 15-49.

On a yearly basis, Korea recorded a fertility rate of 1.654 in 1993, when the government started compiling official statistics. That level, though relatively low, was still enough to ensure a sustainable working-age population. Korea’s fertility rate is estimated to have surpassed 2 in the early 1980s and 4 in the early 1970s, according to unofficial statistics.

But fertility rates continued to decline in the 1990s and 2000s and posted 1.187 in 2013. The figure for 2018 was 0.977, below the 1 mark for the first time in history, and hit 0.88 as of September 2019, according to Statistics Korea.

A research analyst in Sejong said “more people in their 20s and 30s are avoiding marriage or childbirth in the wake of their frustration over a tough job market and skyrocketing apartment prices -- in Seoul particularly -- and the like.”

The proportion of seniors aged 65 or over has grown steadily relative to the total population, and the number of Koreans in their 70s and older has climbed rapidly.

According to the Ministry of Interior and Safety, in December 2009 the respective numbers of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and centenarians, stood at about 2.4 million, 780,000, 90,000 and 2,599.

But those figures had jumped to 3.5 million, 1.6 million, 230,000 and 20,160 as of December 2019.

By Kim Yon-se (