In Seoul, the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs has now explored a new tactic to boost South Korea’s population growth: turning out the lights. At 7 PM today, and once a month subsequently, the lights in the government building will be turned out.
Generous gift vouchers are on offer for officials who have more than one child, and the department organises social gatherings in the hope of fostering love amongst its bureaucrats.
But critics say what is really needed is widescale reform to tackle the burdensome cost of childcare and education that puts many young people off starting a family.
The complaint of the burdensome cost of childcare and education is highly relevant when examining who comprises the South Korean workforce. Overall, in 2005, Korean women represented 42% of the workforce. But a glance at 2001 numbers reveals that in 2001, 90% of South Korean college-educated men entered the workforce, compared to just 54% of college-educated women. This suggests that, unsurprisingly, jobs that are lesser-paid or so-called “unskilled” remain roles filled by women.
Ordering citizens to “make babies” is already heteronormative, but a troublesome aspect of the policy is that it is inevitably targeted toward men. When a workforce is more male, asking employees to procreate reinforces the role of men in Korean homes as decisionmakers about both finances and reproductive health.
At The Grand Narrative, graphs representing Korean women’s employment by age bracket indicate Korean women’s tumultuous entry and exit from the labor pool. Or, as the author phrases it, “For every birth, a Korean career dies.”
Does the new “lights out” policy reinforce the inevitability of higher birth rates driving more women out of the workforce? Perhaps it just indicates that it was not women, but Korean male authorities with working privilege, careers less affected by the struggles of childcare, who brainstormed the experiment.
Ad via The Grand Narrative, from the Italian women’s magazine Grazia.