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More than policy is needed to raise birthrates
OECD economist Adema says cultural changes are required
Andrew Gruen (agruen)     Print Article 
Published 2010-03-11 11:41 (KST)   
Willem Adema's office is classically academic. Papers are strewn about the desk. The space, which was completely filled by four members of the OhmyNews reporting team, has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along each wall, where books are stacked horizontally on top of vertical volumes. He uses a multi-screen laptop/monitor to display datasets.

It feels like a university. Except it's actually a multi-governmental organization: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

As a senior economist at the OECD, it is Adema's job to collect and analyze data from all 30-member states on their birthrates and family polices.
Willem Adema at his desk
©2010 OhmyNews

For the last 8 years of his 16 with the organization, Adema has spent working on the issue, one country has been of particular interest: Korea.

This is in part, he said Tuesday, because Korea is changing so rapidly. It is also obvious that he enjoys a challenge: some of the most basic data he needs to understand Korean families does not exist.

The Korean Bureau of Statistics does not collect the maternal employment rate; it is assumed that once women have children, they will leave the workplace.

Adding to the challenge, the Oxford trained economist explained that it will take far more than government policy to increase Korea's lowest-in-the-OECD birthrate.

Even if he were suddenly made president of Korea, the 46-year-old said he was not sure he could raise the country's birthrate.

"It would be very hard to bring about a culture change," he said. "And that's what we're talking about."

Raising birthrates requires more than policy

The core culture-change issue, for Adema, is about the choice put to Korea's young generation of highly educated women.

Korean women between 25- and 34-years-old have the same, if not higher, educational achievement levels as their male counterparts. They are just as well prepared to participate in paid work.

Yet, he said, due to the working conditions in Korea, they face a harsh reality:

"If women don't feel comfortable with having a career and a child -- if they are forced to choose -- they will," Adema said.

Those choices have consequences, and in Korea, because women do not have the support required to have children and continue to work outside the home, many chose careers over offspring.

For Adema, who is a father of three, the key to raising birthrates is removing this choice, thereby enabling couples to simultaneously focus on career and family.
The OECD offices in Paris
©2010 OhmyNews

Three 'Ji-oks' Facing Women in Korea

Adema, who was in Seoul when Korea joined the OECD in 1996 and spent about three years working on birthrate issues with the organization's office in-country, said he saw three primary issues forcing Korean women to choose between work and children.

Women have limited access to childcare, they face gender inequality in the home, and work in a discriminatory culture that makes short-term leave difficult and keeps husbands away from home for extended hours.

Limited Access to Childcare

Of the three issues, the provision of childcare might be easiest to address, as it can be done through government policy.

According to a 2007 OECD study, "Babies and Bosses," of which Adema had multiple, bound copies -- in English and Korean -- on his desk, Korea had the lowest levels of public spending on families in the group. Compared to French levels, which hover around 3 percent of GDP, Korea spends ten times less -- at about .3 percent of GDP.

However, Adema said that the higher spending was only part of the picture.

"The levels are important, but it's also the composition," he said as he excitedly clicked on a spreadsheet filled with government expenditure data and turned his monitor outward for all to see.

"In France, tax support [for families] makes up about .8 to .9 percent of GDP. [However,] services are 1.5 percent of GDP. An important component of support goes to services: i.e. childcare."

"If we look at Germany," he continued, "the childcare component is much smaller, and Germany -- like Korea -- is one of those countries with a very low birthrate."

"Limited investment in childcare," Adema said, "contributes to the feeling that it is very difficult to combine work and family life."

Oh Yeon-ho with Willem Adema
©2010 OhmyNews

Gender Inequality in the Home

Korea, unlike many European countries, is still home to what demographers and economists call the "male breadwinner model."

In this model, males are responsible for virtually no work in the home. Instead, they work outside, providing financial support for the family. Females are thus responsible for all in-home tasks, including childrearing.

A 2004 study of Korean families highlights these inequalities, according to Kim Young-Iek, the former minister in charge of Korea's birthrate policy and professor at Seoul National University.

In couples where the man is the only one employed outside the home, he contributes about 31 minutes per day to household work, while the woman spends about 6 hours, 25 minutes each day on those tasks. In dual-career couples, men spend 32 minutes, and women use 3 hours, 28 minutes per day.

Adema, who splits his workday in two so he can be home with his children for dinner, said this kind of unequal distribution contributes to Korean women's feelings that they must choose between career and child.

"In Korea a lot of women, probably correctly, assume that their partner will not help them out with child rearing," he said.

Discriminatory workplace culture

Adema added that the "male breadwinner model" is exacerbated in Korea due to the country's workplace culture.

"In Korea, there are much longer working hours [than other places with high birthrates], and there is also a culture of socializing after work with your colleagues," Adema said.

"Korean fathers, potentially, have very little time to help out with the household chores, and the care responsibilities of their partner."

However, other parts of workplace culture put the question of work versus children to women more directly.

According to Adema, who is originally Dutch, there is an expectation that Korean women will "hand in their resignations when they become pregnant." He said this attitude does not exist in France, Scandinavia, the United States, and other high-birthrate countries.

In these countries, women are expected to take time off, and then return to work.

Moreover, he added that pay and benefits in many Korean companies are structured such that they reward seniority -- viewing it as commitment to the firm -- meaning that any time out of a career, for men or women, leave them with significantly reduced responsibility and earning power.

This must change, Adema said, if the birthrate is to rise.

"You should no longer expect women to withdraw from the labor force when they are pregnant and want to have children," he said. "[Temporary departure to have children] is not a sign of weak commitment."

Education, housing, and other social welfare issues

While childcare, gender inequality, and workplace culture issues are the primary areas that need improvement if Korea is to raise its birthrate, Adema highlighted other social welfare issues that have an impact as well.

He cited the extremely high costs of education -- due to the prevalence of after-school private tutoring, known as Hagwons as a major roadblock to parenthood in Korea.

Another problem parents face are high housing costs and long communing times in Seoul metropolitan area -- where more than half Korea's roughly 50 million people live.

When pressed into another Korean hypothetical -- how many children he would have wanted if he lived in Seoul -- Adema chuckled and simply said, "I would have to talk to my wife!"

Then, without prompting, as if he was putting himself into the position of a Seoul-ite he summarized the difficulties Korean couples face.

"Modern Korean men and women don't see how they can combine work and family life. They've both gone to university and gotten a good degree, and they both want to do something. And they want to combine that with having children," Adema said.

"If they were allowed to do so, the birthrate would go up."
Reported by Oh Yeon-ho, Son Byong-guang, and Andrew Gruen on site at the OECD in Paris.
©2010 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Andrew Gruen

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