South Korea wants mothers to work, to bolster the labour force

SHIN JOO-HEE learned to cook at the age of 39, while his wife was pregnant with their son. He says it started as a modest challenge to himself: “I wanted to do something nice for her at least once a week.” To his surprise, he found that he enjoyed it. These days the couple share child care and housework more or less equally, helped along by his flexible hours as a civil servant and her control over her schedule running a private art school. They hope that their son, now seven, will grow up without old-fashioned preconceptions about men’s and women’s work. “I truly believe those stereotypes will disappear in the next generation,” says Mr Shin.

That may be optimistic, but the family’s set-up, although still unusual for South Korea, is less exotic than it would have been just a few years ago, thanks in part to a gradual shift in the authorities’ response to the country’s demographic decline. For decades South Korean women have had too few children to keep the population steady in the long run. Last year deaths exceeded births for the first time. A series of campaigns and incentives to encourage women to have more children have not worked.

So the authorities have begun to focus on stopping the shrinking of the workforce, as opposed to the population. Making big changes to the retirement age or admitting lots of immigrants...

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