It was just reported that South Korea’s birth rate fell to a record low:

Korean women were estimated, based on 2021 data, to have an average of just 0.81 children over their lifetimes, down from 0.84 a year earlier, the statistics office said Wednesday.

A graph in the Bloomberg article provides some context:

People need to stop talking about Japan’s birth rate and start talking about Korea.

The world’s highest fertility rate is in Niger, at 6.7 children per woman.  Of course, South Korea and Niger differ in all sorts of ways.  But it’s worth noting that South Korea’s lifetime fertility rate was roughly 5 per woman back in the 1950s, a time when Korea was as poor as sub-Saharan Africa.

If you talk to people in Korea, they’ll say that the birth rate is low because Koreans cannot afford large families.  That’s a bit odd given that (since 1960) South Korea has become richer at a faster rate than any other country on Earth.  How could Koreans in the 1950s afford large families? How can residents of Niger afford large families?  Yes, you can amend the argument to reflect rising expectations of the Korean middle class, but it still seems somehow inadequate.  It’s too easy an answer—for instance it doesn’t explain the huge gap with equally rich Japan.

There’s another area where Korea is a world leader—putting pressure on students to do well in school in order to get accepted at good universities (and ultimately to get good jobs.)  Perhaps that competitive drive is pushing down birth rates, as Korean families try to maximize the average success of their children, not the total success.

I sometimes wonder if highly competitive cultures are engaged in a sort of zero sum game arms race, trying to do better on arbitrary academic tests in order to get one step ahead of their neighbor.  That seems wasteful.

And yet, I just said South Korea has the world’s fastest growing economy since 1960, so it’s not obvious that a relentless drive to succeed is a bad thing.  But perhaps even a good thing can be pushed too far.  How important is lots of extra hours of studying, at the margin?

People often like to compare the educational regimes of Sweden and Finland.  By conventional measures such as test scores, Finland’s approach is more successful than Sweden’s.  The Swedes seem to focus more on making students happy.

But there’s more to life than test scores.  For instance, Sweden is richer than Finland, despite its less competitive education system.  It’s also worth noting that Sweden has a higher birthrate.  Notice that blue tinted Sweden is an island of fertility between the reddish-orange of Finland and Norway:

(In fairness, the gap between the Swedish and Finnish educational systems has narrowed in recent years.)

I am agnostic on the optimal fertility rate, and I’m also agnostic on the question of what makes people happy.  Is having students study hard a good thing?  Is more fertility a good thing?  Does more GDP per capita make us happier (once we are a developed country)?  I don’t see the answers to any of these questions as being obvious.  And yet I see other pundits talk about what’s best with a high degree of confidence.

PS.  Israel is a case worth thinking about.  Secular Jews have about 2 children per woman, whereas the most highly religious groups have about 6.6 children per woman, comparable to residents of Niger.  This explains why Israel is an outlier among developed countries.

Sci-fi books often have Earthlings exploring the universe in the year 3000.  But I never see sci-fi books where most of the starship crew is Amish people, Haredi Jews, and Africans.  

Seriously, it’s foolish to extrapolate current exponential growth rates, as the one constant in fertility is unexpected change.