Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself?

In the United States, fertility rates increasingly correlate with religiosity. Those who regularly attend religious services have more children than those who irregularly attend, who, in turn, have more than nonreligious people (see the graph below). Does this generalization hold for South Korea, a predominantly secular country with substantial Christian and Buddhist minorities? (A 2021 Gallup Korea poll found that 60 percent of South Koreans have no religion, with 16 percent following Mahayana Buddhism, 17 percent Protestant Christianity, 6 percent Roman Catholic Christianity, and 1 percent other religions.) Apparently, it does so only to a slight degree. According to a study published in Demographic Research in 2021, the Total Fertility Rate by faith in South Korea in 2015 was as follows: no religion, 1.13; Buddhist, 1.33;  Catholic, 1.16; Protestant, 1.28; and “other religion,” 1.20.

A number of scholars, however, have linked South Korea’s ultra-low fertility rate to Confucianism, a largely secular philosophical system with religious undertones. In the Joseon period (1393-1894), Confucianism was the dominant belief system of the Korean elite. Confucian ideas and practices still pervade South Korean society, probably to a greater extent than any other country. Intriguingly, other countries of Confucian heritage also have low (North Korea, Vietnam) or ultra-low (Japan, China, Taiwan) fertility levels (although that of Vietnam is just under replacement level and is currently holding steady). Japan and China are also, like South Korea, afflicted with high rates of withdrawal from marriage and the work-force by disaffected young people, a phenomenon known in China as the “lying flat” movement (tang ping).

Scholars who have posited a link between Confucianism and ultra-low fertility in South Korea have generally focused on women, highlighting the increasing numbers of whom are intentionally foregoing marriage and childbearing. Standard Confucianism is decidedly patriarchal, with wives placed in a subservient position to their husbands. Family solidarity is highly valued, with mothers expected to devote themselves to their children. As a result, pursuing a career is often deemed incompatible with childbearing and rearing. Faced with such a dilemma, increasing numbers of young Korean women are choosing career development over marriage and motherhood.

In an interesting article called “Ultralow Fertility in East Asia: Confucianism and Its Discontents,” Yen-hsin Alice Cheng argues that the East Asia has a unique fertility regime characterized by male-skewed sex ratios at birth (due to son preference), low rates of non-marital birth, rising prevalence of bridal pregnancy, and low rates of cohabitation. These attributes, she argues, are “closely linked to a patriarchal structure based on family lineage through sons, strong parental authority, and emphasis on women’s chastity (i.e. sanctions for premarital sex and ‘illegitimate’ births outside of marriage) and the belief that women are obliged to bear sons to continue the patrilineal bloodline” (p. 98-99). Faced with such expectations, she argues, many young women are simply opting out.

Although the connection between low fertility and Confucian patriarchy has been made by many others, Cheng also links it to Confucian-inspired “credentialism.” Here she focuses on the legacy of the highly prestigious imperial civil service examinations that selected elite bureaucrats based on their exam performances. This heritage has resulted, she argues, in a “low regard for vocational education and craftsmanship in Confucian societies,” with “academic success in the educational system considered a life goal that is of paramount importance …, with parents doing their best to make sure their children advance as far as possible academically” (p. 102). Today, academic success translates into coveted positions in South Korea’s world-class corporations and allows entry into prestigious professions. Such jobs, however, are limited, relegating even some of the most diligent students to non-prestigious jobs that are regarded as humiliating. Faced with such pressures, many young people prefer social withdrawal.

Scholarly attitudes toward Confucianism in the West have oscillated from condemnation to commendation, depending in part on economic and political conditions in East Asia. In the eighteenth century, when Qing China was the world’s most powerful country, Enlightenment philosophers celebrated the rationalism, secularism, and meritocracy of Confucianism, marveling at a society in which elite status was determined more by exam performance than by aristocratic birth and in which the military was subservient to civil society. Some writers even claim that Confucius was the “patron saint of the Enlightenment.” But as China declined in the nineteenth century while the West advanced, attitudes changed. It eventually came to be argued that the inherent conservatism of Confucianism, marked by undue submission to authority and rigidly hierarchical lines of power, prevented innovation, adaptation, and modernization in East Asia. But the mindset shifted again in the second half of the twentieth century as Confucian societies underwent extraordinarily rapid economic growth and modernization. It then came to be argued that Confucianism’s profound respect for education propelled economic development while its emphasis on family cohesion ensured social stability. But now the tables are again turning, with Confucian patriarchy and credentialism blamed for South Korea’s demographic collapse and the concomitant crisis of disaffected young people abandoning social expectations and dropping out.

None of these interpretations are either “correct” or “incorrect,” and all probably contain an element of truth. A belief system as comprehensive as Confucianism has many different aspects and pulls in different directions. It influences social structures but does not determine them, and thus provides partial explanations at best. A significant amount of evidence, moreover, suggests that today’s supposedly Confucian-generated social pathologies are not limited to East Asia. Ultra-low fertility, for example, is found elsewhere, including much of Europe. But here too historically patriarchal social structures seem to play a role, as Europe’s more gender equalitarian societies now have higher fertility levels than those with traditionally stronger gender roles; compare, for example, the TFR charts of Sweden and Italy posted below.

The most important issue is probably the extent to which the social withdrawal phenomenon is unique to South Korea and other countries of Confucian heritage. Similar although less extreme developments do seem to be occurring in the United States and Europe, as is noted in the Wikipedia article on South Korea’s Sampo (“Giving Up”) Generation. Rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation among young people in the U.S., moreover, are also surging. Although many explanations have been offered and debated, this phenomenon is complex and pervasive, leading some to suspect that modernity itself is the ultimate culprit. By this interpretation, modern societies are much better at generating goods and technologies than meaning and real social connections, yet meaning and real social connections remain essential for psychological health. Jon Haidt has been arguing for some time that social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, are responsible for much of the mental-health crisis among American girls; he now argues that the much more gradual psychological decline found among boys began decades earlier with the arrival of computerized gaming, which pulled them out of real-world encounters and into simulated environments. In some regards, South Korea is the most technophilic and modernistic country in the world, and, by this reasoning, it would be expected to be at the leading edge of a modernity-generated social crisis.

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