The Death Cross
Bloomberg Markets|June - July 2021
In South Korea, living alone and childless is becoming a way of life—with dramatic consequences for one of Asia’s most successful economies
SAM KIM

They’re called the Sampo Generation: South Koreans in their 20s and 30s who’ve given up (po) T three (sam) of life’s conventional rites of passage— dating, marrying, and having children. They’ve made these choices because of economic constraints and in the process have worsened Korea’s demographic imbalances. Last year, when the country registered more deaths than births for the first time in recent history, then-Vice Finance Minister Kim Yong-beom pronounced the milestone a “death cross.”

I Live Alone is one of Korea’s most popular reality-TV shows. It follows the single lives of movie actors and K-pop singers engaging in mundane activities such as feeding their pets or eating ramen noodles in the middle of the night—all alone. People living alone already make up almost 40% of the population. Honbap (a solo meal) has worked its way into everyday language; there’s even a lunchbox brand called Honbap Day.

The typical age of a new mother in South Korea is 32, according to the National Statistical Office. The number of births per woman sank to a record low of 0.84 last year, the lowest rate in the world; in Seoul the rate is 0.64. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, Korea’s share of elderly people will become the largest of any country.

This demographic squeeze has slowed one of the world’s most advanced economies. While Korea’s gross domestic product growth last year, -1%, was less bad than many countries’ thanks to the nation’s effective containment of the coronavirus, its average over the past 10 years—2.5%—was well down from the average of more than 8% from 1980 to 2000, when its workforce was younger.

Those heady times would be unrecognizable to such Koreans as Yang U-jin, 25, and Kim Yoon-jeong, 30. After his application to, as he puts it, “every company that has to do with electronics” in and around Seoul brought little success, Yang moved out of the capital and back to his hometown near the southern port city of Busan, hoping for better luck there.

In Kim’s case, she’s chosen to not have children since getting married in 2016. She says the rising costs of owning a home and raising a family make it difficult to consider having kids. “It’s impossible for a couple not to both be working,” she says. “It’s like the whole Korean society is pressuring young people not to have kids.”

Korea’s predicament is extreme but not unique. Globally, 1 in 6 people will be over age 65 by 2050, compared with 1 in 11 last year, according to projections by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Aging is more acute in the developed world—1 in 4 people in Canada, Europe, and the U.S. may be 65 or over by then, while 1 in 6 could be that old in Latin America and the Caribbean. The share of people 65 or older in southern Asia and northern Africa may also double to 1 in 8 and 1 in 9, respectively.

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