By 2060, four out of 10 Koreans will be elderly, each young person will have to support one senior citizen, and the nation's potential growth rate will sink below 1 percent, according to demographic studies.
Or the nation may not need to look so far into the future because it is facing a "population precipice" in 2018 when the number of children and adolescents is expected to fall sharply.
All this is occurring because of outdated social perceptions of and poor infrastructure for bearing and rearing children, which work to pull down the birthrate and lower the utilization ratio of a female workforce, experts said.
Korea's female employment shows an "M" curve, as the hiring rate continues to climb from graduation to marriage and until childbirth, then falls steeply during their 30s when they are raising children, and rises again as they return to work after their children are old enough. The problem is that their second vocational careers are largely unrelated, and mostly of lower status than their former jobs, with considerable wage gaps between them.
That explains why Korean women's college entrance rate of 74.6 percent exceeds men's 67.6 percent, but the female employment rate of 49.5 percent is more than 20 percent lower than men's 71.4 percent.
According to LG Research Institute, this career discontinuity is higher among highly educated women because they give up seeking jobs and exit the labor market if they find their second careers to be unsatisfactory. One such woman's lifetime income loss amounts to 630 million won ($538,000), it said.
"If bearing and rearing children is tantamount to giving up one's lifetime career, various slogans for raising the birthrate can't help but ring hollow," said a research fellow. "To rectify the effects of late marriages and the low birthrate, the nation should actively help people keep a good balance between work and family by improving the childcare leave system and a flexible work system."
However, with the population precipice just a couple years away, what's needed are steps that can produce immediate effects, such as importing labor, they said.
So far, the imported workforce has been brought in to fill the void in the so-called 3D (dirty, difficult and dangerous) jobs but the government should change its policy toward attracting highly skilled and professional manpower from abroad, they said.
According to the Hyundai Research Institute, foreign residents in Korea totaled 1.57 million in 2013, 3.2 times higher than the 491,000 of 2000. Noticeable was a steep increase in simple, unskilled labor, which also jumped three times from 160,000 in 2003 to 499,000 in 2013. Despite the government's efforts, the inflow of professional manpower fell from 3.5 percent of total foreign workers to 3.2 percent over the period. The number of foreign students also peaked at 88,000 in 2011.
The import of unskilled foreign workers may contribute to GDP growth, but the effects are negligible, said the experts, adding that this is why industrial countries that have advanced know-how in this area are focusing on the immigration of scientists and technicians as well as high-achieving foreign students.
"The nation needs to induce excellent international students and help them settle here after graduation through providing various incentives in residences and employment on a stable, long-term basis," said Lee Hae-jeong, a fellow at HRI.
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