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1Numerous European studies conducted since the 1980s have examined female employment and fertility, finding a positive link in some cases, and a negative link in others, depending on the country and the period under study. Social policies and economic context, gender relations and family norms all play a role in this complex fertility-employment relationship, and explain the variability observed. In this article, Li Ma presents original new findings for South Korea, a country with one of the world’s lowest levels of fertility: just 1.15 children per woman in 2009. Using longitudinal data covering the last three decades and event history models, the author shows that women’s employment and motherhood entry are increasingly interlinked, implying a shift away from the family norms that prevailed in South Korea until recently. Alongside these notable social changes, women’s rising educational level and their employment conditions –?more specifically employment security?– are decisive for reconciling first birth and continued labour force participation.

2Recent decades have seen an increasing body of research addressing the relationship between women’s employment and their childbearing behaviour, with most research addressing the contemporary situation in western countries. This article draws attention to the case of South Korea (or Korea). Korea is a rapidly developing country in East Asia that offers a very compelling context for a study on female employment and motherhood entry. While economic and demographic developments since the 1980s have been very swift, its welfare system still relies on familistic principles.

3Labour force participation and fertility are two central aspects of women’s lives, and the relationship between them has been an important topic in recent social science research. Female labour force participation rates (FLFPR) and total fertility rates [1] (TFR) from 21 OECD countries reveal that the aggregate relationship between employment and fertility was negative before the 1980s. But since then it has been positive, and even strongly positive since the 1990s (Brewster and Rindfuss, 2000). In countries where the conflict between women’s work and family responsibilities has eased, positive employment-fertility relationships occur. In countries where women are still forced to decide between employment and family life, negative relationships remain (Brewster and Rindfuss, 2000; Rindfuss et al., 2003).

4At the individual level, positive associations have been documented for Nordic countries with a universalistic welfare regime (Hoem, 1990; Sundström and Stafford, 1992; Bernhardt, 1993; Andersson, 2000; Hoem, 2000; Oláh, 2003; Rønsen, 2004; Vikat, 2004; Andersson, 2008; Lappegård, 2010). For example, Swedish family policies supporting women’s labour force participation and promoting gender equality are arguably related to the country’s relatively high fertility. Another example is France, where the context is also relatively favourable to reconciling work and childrearing (Thévenon, 2009). In contrast, in countries with conservative and familistic welfare regimes, like Germany and Italy in Europe, negative employment-fertility relationships dominate. These countries encourage a more traditional gender division of work and care, and usually offer less policy support to enable women to reconcile work and family life (Matysiak and Vignoli, 2008). Régnier-Loilier and Vignoli (2011) find that the obstacles to parenthood are strong in Italy due to the absence of institutional support for working mothers. Across Europe, a pattern emerges where decisions to have a child depend on whether a birth can be reconciled with employment (Thévenon, 2009).

5Apart from the role of institutional factors, the influence of economic cycles on fertility and the employment-fertility relationship have also been examined. For example, Sobotka et al. (2011) look at how the most recent economic recession has affected fertility in the developed world. Rindfuss et al. (1988) and Lee (1990) argue that fertility decline during recession is temporary; it may be recuperated after economic recovery. Different individuals may respond differently to economic recessions. Some women may refrain from childbearing, while others may see this period as an opportunity for pregnancy as their career expectations are disrupted (Macunovich, 1996). For women with low educational level and income, when difficult economic conditions lower their chances of getting a good job, becoming a parent may serve to reduce uncertainties in their life situation (Friedman et al., 1994; Kreyenfeld, 2010). Thévenon and Gauthier (2011) point to the protective role of public policy for fertility during economic recession, particularly the provision of parental leave with job protection and income compensation.

6From an individual-level perspective, Kreyenfeld et al. (2012) summarize how economic and employment uncertainties are related to fertility and family dynamics across Europe. On the whole, the association between employment status, employment stability and fertility differs by country. In western Germany, occupational uncertainty (part-time working or fixed-term contract) hampers transition to parenthood (Schmitt, 2012). In France, women with a temporary employment contract are less likely to have a child than those with a permanent contract (Régnier-Loilier and Vignoli, 2011). In Sweden, young people are in a similar situation, and people who are not in the labour force have the lowest intensity of first births; this holds for women as well as for men (Lundström and Andersson, 2012). In Italy, non-working women have higher first-birth rates than employed women (Santarelli, 2011). For Kreyenfeld et al. (2012), there is no simple answer to how economic uncertainty affects fertility, since social policies and institutional factors mediate the relationship.

7Most research dealing with the employment-fertility relationship focuses on developed countries in the West. Relevant knowledge is scarcer for the eastern world. This article improves on this situation by focusing on South Korea and the patterns of motherhood entry in that country. There are two strong reasons for concentrating on Korea. First, Korea’s economy has grown at a remarkable speed over the past five decades. Before the 1960s, its industrial economy was still largely undeveloped (Jones and Leete, 2002). But beginning in the 1960s, together with several other countries in East and South East Asia, Korea created the region’s economic “miracle” (Rauhala, 2012). Thanks to its rapid development, Korea was granted membership of the OECD in 1996. Though hard hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, its GDP recovered to its pre-crisis level in 2002.

8Secondly, Korea’s economic development has occurred in conjunction with profound social and demographic changes. Education has expanded at a rapid pace; marriage and childbearing have been delayed; pre-marital cohabitation has become more common (though extramarital births are still rare); women have become more strongly attached to the labour force and have gained increasing economic and social independence; and the nation has experienced one of the sharpest fertility declines among OECD countries, with a TFR that plummeted from 5.0 in 1965 to 1.15 in 2009. According to Lesthaeghe (2010), Korea seems to have joined the second demographic transition (SDT), exhibiting all its features except one (nonmarital childbearing).

9Section I of this article begins with an account of the socioeconomic, demographic and institutional contexts of South Korea, followed by a presentation of data and methods in Section II. Section III demonstrates and discusses the main results of the study; the conclusion section summarizes the main findings and discusses research and policy implications.

I – Socioeconomic, demographic and institutional contexts of Korea

Rapid economic development and profound demographic change

10Korea has experienced profound social and economic change over the past decades. Its economic development occurred relatively late compared with other OECD countries, but at a rapid pace. Figure 1 shows that Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased steadily and rapidly from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. However, this regular trend was interrupted in 1997 by the Asian financial crisis, which began with the economic meltdown of Thailand and quickly spread to other countries in Asia. Korea’s unemployment rates skyrocketed in 1998 and its GDP had nowhere to go but down. The whole of society was rocked by social unrest. It was not until 2002 that the country returned to economic growth. Thereafter, its economy took off and escalated again until 2008, when Korea was hit by another wave of economic recession.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 1

Gross domestic product (GDP) and unemployment rate in Korea, 1980-2011
Source: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, April 2011.

11Korea’s economic development has been accompanied by substantial demographic change. Figure 2 shows the TFRs of a few selected OECD countries, all of which were experiencing fertility decline by the mid-1960s. One after another, their TFRs dropped to below replacement level. Korea stands out as the country with the sharpest decline in fertility, from 5.0 in 1965 to 1.47 in 2000. The level of 1.3 reached in 2001 marks the onset of Korea’s “lowest-low” fertility era, and in 2005 Korea’s TFR fell to an all-time low of 1.08. Since then, its TFR has lingered below 1.3.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2

Period total fertility rate (TFR) of Korea compared with those of other selected OECD countries, 1965-2009
Source: OECD (2012a).

12Korea’s fertility decline can be attributed to a combination of factors. For Choe and Retherford (2009), the family planning programme initiated in 1962 was the main driving force behind the onset of fertility decline. In the 1950s and 1960s, Korea was a country with rapid population growth, high population density, high fertility and a largely undeveloped industrial economy (Jones and Leete, 2002). As in many other Asian countries, its growing population was viewed as an obstacle to economic development. In 1962, the government implemented a family planning programme to control population growth (Rhee, 2007). An integral part of Korea’s national economic plan, this programme aimed to reduce the number of unwanted births and to reduce the ideal family size to three children or fewer. In the early 1980s, new goals were set to lower the ideal to two children, and to bring the TFR down to replacement level by 1988. The programme was abandoned after 1988, partly because these goals had been achieved (Choe and Retherford, 2009; S-S Lee, 2009). According to Jones (2007) and S-S Lee (2009), Korea’s fertility decline from the 1960s to the 1980s was mainly due to lower fertility within marriage. By contrast, the continued decline down to very low fertility levels since the 1990s has largely been driven by delayed marriage, a process closely connected with the expansion of education.

Educational expansion, labour market entry and family responsibilities of women

13In 1975, only 20% of female high school graduates advanced to higher education. This proportion increased to 34% in 1985, to 50% in 1995, and to 81% in 2005 (Choe and Retherford, 2009; Frejka et al., 2010). The key role of educational expansion in Korea’s fertility decline is documented by Atoh et al. (2004), Jones (2007, 2010), Kye (2008), Choe and Retherford (2009), Frejka et al. (2010), and Anderson and Kohler (2013). For example, Jones (2010) reports that women’s mean age at marriage increased from 24.1 years in 1980 to 28.8 years in 2005. Kye (2008) shows that the influence of educational expansion on postponement of first marriage has been strong. Once married, Korean women have children quickly. High-educated women tend to marry and become mothers later than low-educated women do.

14From another perspective, researchers have documented the negative influence on fertility of the cost of educating children. A good university education is essential for attaining a well-paid and secure job in Korea (Seth, 2002; Eun, 2007; Choe and Retherford, 2009). Under the macro context of educational expansion, many parents send their children to expensive private tutoring or after-school learning institutes (or “cram schools”) to prepare them for competitive college entrance exams. [2] The cost of educating children discourages couples from having more than two (Anderson and Kohler, 2013).

15Women’s high educational attainment does not necessarily bring them high labour market rewards. Figure 3 shows men’s and women’s employment rates [3] by age group and by calendar period in Korea. Although female educational attainment has been increasing remarkably, the employment rates of women aged above 25 are still much lower than those of men for all calendar periods. [4] Nonetheless, with the rise of women’s educational levels, their labour force participation has been gradually increasing, albeit at a slow pace. In sharp contrast to men, a woman’s working career is curtailed at the primary childbearing ages (25-34). Over time, Korean women’s labour force participation behaviour has changed little: labour market entry followed by labour market exit for family life and then labour market re-entry when their children need less care.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 3

Employment rates by age group, calendar periods and gender, South Korea, 1990-2011, (%)
Source: OECD (2012a).

16The M-curved patterns indicate that for Korean women, temporarily sacrificing their career at a certain stage of life for the sake of family formation and expansion is entrenched in tradition. We can see that ages 25-29, once the ages when most women left the labour market, have today become peak ages for labour force involvement and the age at labour market exit has gradually shifted to ages 30-34 (Figure 3). Women aged 25-29 have become more strongly attached to the labour force after completing their education. The shift is closely linked to prolonged schooling, delayed labour market entry and subsequent postponement of family formation.

17Although women have become more engaged in the labour force, gender equality is not progressing in tandem. Families still follow conservative patterns in terms of household chores and gender roles. Korean men see themselves as the sole family breadwinner and women as the primary caregiver, holding the main responsibility for household chores and raising children. Hence, when working women reach the life stage of family formation and expansion, both society and their family expect them to leave the labour market and take responsibility for providing care at home. A significant number of women follow these expectations by temporarily sacrificing their career, irrespective of the educational level they have attained. However, from the mid-1990s the number of women who dropped out of the labour market at ages 25-34 started decreasing, implying that some women may have started challenging these expectations. After gaining economic independence, some women even tend to forgo marriage and childbearing, as they are reluctant to give up paid work for homemaking (Eun, 2007).

Institutional factors: labour market constraints and social policies

18Korea’s demanding labour market conditions make it difficult for women to reconcile work and family responsibilities. In Korea, long working hours are part of corporate culture, as they demonstrate loyalty to one’s employer (Choe et al., 2004). The average number of hours usually worked per week per person in Korea is the highest of all OECD countries (OECD, 2012b). In 2000, Koreans worked 52 hours per week on average, well above the OECD average of 40 hours. Though the figure had fallen to 45 hours in 2011, it was still higher than the OECD average of 38.4 hours. In 2011, Koreans worked around eleven more hours per week than Norwegians, seven more than the French and six more than the Spanish. Besides, part-time employment is very rare and opportunities to work flexible hours are almost non-existent. Moreover, until the 1980s, women on the labour market were affected by discriminatory practices based on their marital status. Single women could work as clerks, manual workers or professionals, with job continuity only until marriage. Married working women tended to be self-employed or to work for their family (Lee 1998). In addition, Korea’s gender wage gap remains large. For full-time employees, it has been the highest of all OECD countries since the 1990s (OECD, 2012b). In such a context, women do not have much incentive to stay in their jobs after family formation, and instead choose to assume care responsibility at home.

19Paid leave with job protection after childbirth, early childhood education and childcare, and flexible working hours are the main OECD policy recommendations to help women balance work and family life (OECD 2011), and may have a decisive impact starting with the birth of the first child (Thévenon and Gauthier 2011). However, the development of family policies has been rather slow in Korea, and support to families and working parents is limited (Thévenon, 2011). Working flexible hours is almost impossible, and childcare provision and early education services were far from sufficient before 2008. Korea was ranked the worst, or one of the worst, among OECD countries in public expenditure on childcare and early education services from 1998 to 2007 (OECD, 2012a). As of 2005, only 20% of children below three years of age had access to childcare services, [5] and 68% of children aged 3-5 attended preschool (OECD, 2006). From 2008 onward, the Korean government made significant efforts to reduce the burden of childrearing. In 2008 and 2009, 0.6% and 0.7% of the GDP (around the OECD average) were invested in childcare and early education services (OECD, 2012b, 2012c, 2012d). By 2008, the childcare enrolment rate for children under three years old had increased to 38%, while 80% of children aged 3-5 attended preschool (OECD, 2012a).

20As regards maternity leave, the rule of 60 days of unpaid leave remained unchanged in Korea from 1953 to 2001. In 2001, women became entitled to 90 days of fully paid maternity leave (with 100% income compensation), with the stipulation that at least 45 days of the leave should be used after childbirth (K-H Lee, 2009; MOEL, 2011a, 2011b). Dismissal during maternity leave is now prohibited; women have the legal right to return to the same or a similar position (ILO, 2006). For women covered by employment insurance (for at least 180 days), their employer covers the income compensation for the first 60 days and the remaining 30 days are covered by the insurance (Kim, 2007; Peng, 2009). Women with insurance coverage are usually those who hold stable and regular employment positions.

21From 2006 onward, employment insurance for employees in small- and medium-sized companies was extended to cover the entire maternity leave period (90 days). For insured women in large enterprises, the employer is still responsible for two-thirds of the leave (Suzuki, 2008; K-H Lee, 2009; Peng, 2009; MOEL, 2011a). The upper limit of income compensation provided under the insurance scheme has been 1.35 million KRW (around USD 1,000) per month since 2001. For employees with no insurance coverage, the employer should, in principle, take full responsibility for offering leave and benefits. However, this is mainly a recommendation. In practice, financial constraints often prevent employers from granting women their benefits (K-H Lee, 2009).

22Unpaid parental leave was introduced in Korea in 1987. From 2001, employees with employment insurance could enjoy parental leave with a flat-rate compensation of 200,000 KRW (around USD 130) per month for 10.5 months, in addition to the 90-days of fully paid maternity leave (Suzuki, 2008; Kim, 2007; Peng, 2009). Parental leave was also job-protected (ILO, 2006). The financial support for parental leave in 2001 was equal to one-eighth of women’s average income and one-tenth of men’s (K-H Lee, 2009). Consequently, women’s uptake of parental leave was low and fathers’ uptake almost negligible (OECD, 2006). In 2011 the employment insurance started providing 40% of the beneficiary’s usual wage for 12 months, rather than the previous flat rate (MOEL, 2011a).

23Compared with previous conditions, the family policy introduced in 2001, including paid leave and job protection, was a significant improvement. However, Korea still lags behind other developed countries in the development of its social policies. In 2009, Korea ranked lowest among OECD countries for expenditure on maternity and parental leave per child born (OECD, 2012d).

Traditional values and value change

24Koreans have maintained many aspects of traditional family behaviour; childbearing within marriage is one of them. The link between marriage and fertility is very strong. Transitions to marriage and parenthood follow an orderly pattern (Kye, 2008). Though cohabiting relationships are gaining popularity, childbearing outside marriage is still not socially accepted. In Europe, childbearing within cohabiting unions had spread from Scandinavia to the rest of Western Europe by the 1980s (Lesthaeghe, 2010). As early as 1970, 7% of births in France and 19% of births in Sweden occurred outside marriage. In 2009, the proportion had increased to 53% and 55%, respectively (OECD, 2012a). In sharp contrast, the share of births outside marriage in Korea was only 1.5% in 2009, the lowest among OECD countries (OECD, 2012a). In a context where childbearing is restricted to marriage, fertility may be depressed if marriage is no longer a universal value.

25Up to the 1980s, it was a woman’s obligation to marry and bear children to perpetuate the family line. But since the 1990s, these once sacred concepts have gradually lost ground. Marriage and childbirth are no longer universal duties but have rather become a choice (S-S Lee, 2009). Drawing from the 1994 National Survey on the Quality of Life (NSQL) funded by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), Bumpass and Choe (2004) discover that younger cohorts show lower support for the position that marriage and children are necessary for a full and satisfying life. Negative attitudes towards marriage, childbearing and traditional gender roles are particularly pronounced among younger women.

26Value change among men might also affect women’s economic activity as well as their childbearing behaviour. Korean men, who long adhered firmly to traditional gender roles, may have started to realize the financial advantage of having a working wife, especially after the financial crisis in 1997. Working women have recently become more attractive on the marriage market, and working wives have become more socially acceptable (Anderson and Kohler, 2013).

Research questions

27Korea has enjoyed spectacular economic development in the past five decades. At the same time profound social and demographic changes have occurred, such as educational expansion, postponement of marriage, cohabitation before marriage, women’s increasing labour force participation as well as pursuit of individual autonomy and significant fertility decline. Like women in the West, Korean women prefer to acquire work experience before considering childbearing; yet demanding working conditions, historically-entrenched gender inequality in both the public and family spheres, and the slow development of family policies in Korea make it hard for women to reconcile work and family commitments.

28With regard to the employment-fertility relationship in the context of Korea, aggregated data show that the country’s TFR is negatively related to female labour force participation. However, the profound socioeconomic, demographic and institutional changes of recent decades seem to conceal some more interesting underlying stories. In this study, I will examine the special relationship between women’s employment and motherhood entry in the context of Korea. Based on Korea’s specific context described above, I offer the following research questions:

  • How do the trend and intensity of first births evolve over time? What are the factors that may help to shape this trend?
  • How is women’s employment status related to motherhood entry? Do women who have left the labour market have higher intensity of becoming a parent than others do?
  • For women currently employed as wage earners, how are job characteristics related to motherhood entry?
  • What is the role of recently introduced family policies in women’s entry into motherhood?

II – Data and methods

29Data used for the analyses in this study are from waves 1 to 10 of the Korea Labor and Income Panel Study (KLIPS), Korea’s only labour-related panel survey, initiated by the Korea Labor Institute. The first wave was conducted in 1998 with an original sample of 5,000 households in urban areas. Direct face-to-face interviews with the household reference person or the spouse were carried out to collect information on household members aged above 15 years. In limited special cases, other methods were used for data collection, such as self-administered questionnaires or telephone interviews.

30In the first survey, retrospective information on the demographic characteristics of individuals aged above 15 in the household and their job characteristics was collected. The survey was conducted annually to track changes in characteristics of households as well as individuals. If an individual within a household turned 15, or if an individual aged above 15 joined a sampled household, he or she was included in the survey. New respondent data were collected regarding retrospective information. If some household members moved out and formed new families, the new household and its members were tracked as well. The most recent accessible data are from wave 10, conducted in 2007.

31The greatest advantage of adopting KLIPS for this study is that, apart from background information on individuals (such as birth date, childhood residence, and educational attainment), it offers rich longitudinal data at the micro level, such as employment history, civil status changes, and birth date of each child. These important life-course episodes are essential factors for studying the employment-fertility relationship. The disadvantage of using KLIPS is that the sample consists of people living in urban areas at the time of interview, which means that the findings do not represent Korea as a whole. Still, 83% of the country’s population now lives in urban areas (United Nations, 2012). [6]

32Event history analysis is used to examine the relationship between women’s employment and motherhood entry. The observation window opens when a woman turns 15, and the events are tracked prospectively in time and dated monthly with “woman-months” as the unit of analysis. The observation window closes at the time of first birth, the last interview or age 45, whichever comes first. Considering Korean women’s conventional practice of withdrawing from the labour market for family life, nine months are subtracted from the date of any reported first birth to capture the effect of pre-pregnancy employment status and job characteristics on first-birth fertility. For respondents who remain childless until the last interview time or age 45, nine months are also subtracted to obtain a uniform sample. Hence, the dependent variable in this study is the confirmed conception of the first live birth. [7]

33The total sample for observation contains 7,338 women aged 15-44 during the period 1978 to 2006, [8] among whom 3,370 conceived their first child during the same period. I apply piecewise constant exponential models. The model can be depicted as follows:

35where h0 (t) represents the baseline hazard function, xj represents a vector of explanatory and control variables used in the analysis, and ?x the corresponding vector of the regression parameters that indicate the effect of the variables.

36Table 1 presents descriptive statistics of the prime explanatory variables regarding the occurrence of events (conception of the first live birth) as well as exposure time to the risk of first conception (woman-months as childless). First and foremost is the time-varying variable calendar year; estimation of this variable shows how the trend of motherhood entry varies over time. The variable is categorized into six groups on a five-year basis. The period 1998-2002 is set as the reference category, because this period indicates the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The first four groups represent the time of fast economic growth before the crisis, and 2003-2006 corresponds to the economic recovery period after the crisis.

Table 1

Women exposed to first birth risk(a) and annual rate of first conception

Table 1
Woman-months Events (first conception) Annual first conception rate (%) Number % Number % Calendar years 1978-1982 153,598 17 714 21 6 1983-1987 140,452 16 618 18 5 1988-1992 147,538 16 600 18 5 1993-1997 161,387 18 545 16 4 1998-2002 164,824 18 550 16 4 2003-2006 136,647 15 343 10 3 Employment status Never employed 460,611 51 893 26 2 Employed 298,581 33 1,181 35 5 Wage earner-private 123,071 14 475 14 5 Wage earner-public 29,743 3 206 6 8 Wage earner-other 7,831 1 18 1 3 Non wage earner 52,781 6 175 5 4 Data missing 85,155 9 307 9 4 Previously employed 145,254 16 1,296 38 11 Total 904,446 100 3,370 100

Women exposed to first birth risk(a) and annual rate of first conception

(a) First conception leading to a live birth.
Note: “Woman-months” indicates the total number of months that women are exposed to the risk of becoming a mother. “Events” indicates the total number of conceptions resulting in a first live birth.
Interpretation: Never-employed women were childless and not pregnant for 460,611 months. 893 never-employed women conceived their first live child. Their annual conception rate for a first live child was thus 2%.
Source: KLIPS (1998-2007).

37The second important explanatory variable is female employment status. This is a time-varying covariate, containing three categories: never employed, employed (reference), previously employed. This variable reveals whether Korean women who have withdrawn from the labour market have a higher intensity of first childbearing than the others.

38For women currently in the labour force under the category of “employed”, more detailed information on their work type is available. They may be wage earners in the private or public sector, or non wage earners working for a family business or in agriculture. The Korean public sector covers workplaces such as schools, hospitals, state-owned enterprises, government or government branches, government-related companies and foundations. This sector offers the most stable job positions, and can also be regarded as a proxy for employment stability. It can help us detect how motherhood entry by wage earners varies by employment stability, and may also provide indications of how the recently introduced maternity/parental leave system may interact with women’s propensity to become a mother.

39Seven variables are used as control variables, among which three are time-varying and four are time-fixed. [9] Woman’s age is presented by five-year age groups between ages 15 and 44. It is the basic time factor of this study.

40Women’s educational level is essential in this study, as its importance in childbearing behaviour has been frequently documented. Given that Korea’s school system is relatively uniform, following a standard system, women’s educational history is based on the time they reported obtaining their final educational qualification. Woman’s educational level is categorized into six groups: still enrolled in education, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and university or above. The first category indicates the periods when women were still enrolled in education. The latter groups indicate women’s final educational attainment.

41Fertility studies on East Asian countries often focus on married women. However, with pre-marital cohabitation becoming more common, more children might be conceived outside marriage but born after marriage. To discern this possible subtle change, we take into account all women at risk of becoming a mother by creating a time-varying variable for marital status: singlehood, first marriage, disrupted periods and later marriages. Around 34% of total events (first conceptions) in our sample occur outside marriage and around 66% in first marriages (Appendix Table). Expanding the study population to all women at reproductive ages, rather than married women only, serves to reveal the dynamics of motherhood entry both within and outside marriage. The remaining background variables, including religion, childhood residence, father’s education and mother’s education, are all time-fixed.

III – Findings and discussions

The various factors of entry into motherhood

42Table 2 presents estimations from the main effects models in the form of relative first-birth risks by calendar year, employment status and other covariates. Model 1 – the simplest model – includes only the woman’s age and calendar year to capture the unconditioned calendar year effects on the likelihood of becoming a mother. In Model 2, employment status is included. From Models 3 to 5, education, background factors and marital status are added stepwise.

Table 2

Relative risks of motherhood entry estimated using different models, South Korea 1978-2006

Table 2
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5 Age group 15-19 0.09 *** 0.11 *** 0.35 *** 0.35 *** 0.57 *** 20-24 1 1 1 1 1 25-29 2.47 *** 2.14 *** 1.79 *** 1.80 *** 0.92 ** 30-34 0.81 *** 0.71 *** 0.62 *** 0.63 *** 0.23 *** 35-39 0.14 *** 0.13 *** 0.12 *** 0.12 *** 0.04 *** 40-44 0.01 *** 0.01 *** 0.01 *** 0.01 *** 0.00 *** Explanatory variables Calendar years 1978-1982 2.05 *** 2.38 *** 2.20 *** 2.10 *** 1.38 *** 1983-1987 1.94 *** 2.13 *** 1.98 *** 1.90 *** 1.55 *** 1988-1992 1.76 *** 1.83 *** 1.76 *** 1.70 *** 1.45 *** 1993-1997 1.29 *** 1.34 *** 1.35 *** 1.34 *** 1.18 *** 1998-2002 1 1 1 1 1 2003-2006 0.68 *** 0.70 *** 0.64 *** 0.65 *** 0.77 *** Employment status Never employed 0.75 *** 0.95 0.96 0.78 *** Employed 1 1 1 1 Previously employed 2.09 *** 2.14 *** 2.15 *** 1.36 ***

Relative risks of motherhood entry estimated using different models, South Korea 1978-2006

Statistical significance: ***: p ? 0.01, **: p ? 0.05, *: p ? 0.10.
Table 2 (cont’d)

Relative risks of motherhood entry estimated using different models, South Korea 1978-2006

Table 2 (cont’d)
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5 Control variables Education In education 0.04 *** 0.04 *** 0.04 *** Elementary school 0.67 *** 0.61 *** 0.44 *** Middle school 1.01 0.93 0.73 *** High school 1 1 1 College 1.07 1.10 1.21 *** University or above 1.17 ** 1.30 *** 1.39 *** Religion None 1 1 Buddhist 1.06 1.03 Protestant 1.03 1.02 Catholic 0.97 1.00 Other 0.99 1.13 Childhood residence Seoul 1 1 Metropolitan area 1.19 *** 1.16 *** Other province 1.36 *** 1.23 *** Father’s education Low 1 1 Middle 0.86 *** 0.89 *** High 0.74 *** 0.76 *** Mother’s education Low 1 1 Middle 1.15 *** 1.13 ** High 1.01 1.03 Marital status Single 0.14 *** First marriage 1 Disrupted 0.23 *** Later marriages 0.63 Constant 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.02 Number of women 7,338 Number of first conceptions 3,370 Time at risk (months) 904,446 Log likelihood – 4,119.44 – 3,844.24 – 3,436.63 – 3,387.03 – 2,315.11 LR chi2 3,774.16 4,324.55 5,139.77 5,238.98 7,382.81 Prob > chi2 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00

Relative risks of motherhood entry estimated using different models, South Korea 1978-2006

Source: Estimations based on KLIPS.

43An overall reduction of first-birth risks over calendar years is discerned in Model 1. From Models 2 to 4, when employment status, education and background factors are involved one after another, the gradient between calendar year groups largely remains the same. When marital status is taken into consideration (Model 5), the difference between calendar year groups is substantially reduced. The relatively weak decline over the first three year groups (from 1978 to 1992) disappears. The later decline from the 1990s onward is much smaller.

44The results imply that the first-birth trend up to the early 1990s (Models 1-5) was largely due to stable marriage rates during that period. The family planning programme, expansion of education and female labour force participation did not strikingly affect first-birth fertility, although marriage postponement and decline during the 1990s accentuated the trend. However, marriage postponement or decline is not a sufficient explanation for the consecutive decline in first births; other factors must be at play, too. Changing social attitudes towards marriage and childbearing may need to be considered. As discussed previously, the concepts of marriage and childbearing are no longer universal values. Besides, the increasing cost of educating children following the development of cram schools in the 1990s may have reduced women’s childbearing intensity. Further, the Asian financial crisis that hit Korea in 1997 brought uncertainty to people’s daily lives. Unsure of the future, many Koreans postponed marriage and family formation, further exacerbating the first-birth decline. Although Korea’s economy had returned to growth by the years 2003-2006, first-birth risk remained at a low level.

45Models 2 to 4 reveal clear differences in motherhood entry between women of different employment status. Women who withdraw from the labour market are more than twice as likely to become a mother than women who remain in the labour force. Women with no employment experience at all are at rather low risk of becoming a mother, implying that Korean women are less likely to enter motherhood before obtaining labour market experience. When marital status is included in Model 5, the difference between women who have left the labour force and the other two groups is much smaller, but the pattern still remains. The results suggest that leaving the labour market is a signal of family extension; it is typical for Korean women to withdraw from the labour market when anticipating motherhood.

46The results for the control variables also deserve a brief discussion. Differential effects of educational level on motherhood transition are discovered. Women in education are at the lowest risk of becoming a mother. Among women who have completed their education, women at college level or above are most likely to become a mother. When marital status is held constant, the pattern becomes even more distinct. Once married, the more highly educated a woman, the more quickly she becomes a mother. The results reveal a selection effect of education on motherhood entry. Highly educated women are more likely to postpone marriage; but once married, they are more committed to the prospect of motherhood than women with lower educational attainment.

47Estimations of background factors show that while religion does not make much difference to women’s first-time pregnancy, childhood residence does. Women who grew up in metropolitan areas, especially in the Seoul National Capital Area, are less likely to become mothers than women who grew up in other provinces. Women who grew up in big cities may have had more opportunities to envisage other life goals than the career of becoming a mother. The educational attainment of a woman’s father is negatively associated with her motherhood entry, while the influence of her mother’s education is not clear. Compared to women in their first marriage, single women are at rather low risk of entering motherhood. It is still apparent that pregnancy outside marriage is not entirely uncommon in Korean society. As births in Korea overwhelmingly occur in marriage, it can be inferred that a certain number of births that occur in marriage are in fact conceived during premarital singlehood. The estimation for disrupted periods and later marriages is uncertain because there were few cases of these categories in our data.

Role of job characteristics

48Table 3 presents the results of the Model 5B on the role of job characteristics in first-time motherhood transitions. The effects of other covariates are similar to those of Model 5 in Table 2, and are thus not shown again. The “employed” category is expanded with information on whether women work in the “private”, “public” or “other” sector.

Table 3

Relative risks of motherhood entry by type of employment, South Korea 1978-2006(a)

Table 3
 Employment status Model 5B Never employed 0.57 *** Wage earner-private 0.76 *** Wage earner-public 1 Wage earner-other(a) 0.68 Non wage earner 0.62 *** Employed but data missing 0.68 *** Previously employed 1.01 Number of women 7,338 Number of first conceptions 3,370 Time at risk (months) 904,446 Log likelihood – 2,303.08 LR chi2 7,406.89 Prob > chi2 0.000

Relative risks of motherhood entry by type of employment, South Korea 1978-2006(a)

(a) This estimation is not statistically significant as there were only a limited number of cases.
Note: The control variables are the same as those of Model 5 given in Table 2.
Statistical significance: ***: p ? 0.01, **: p ? 0.05, *: p ? 0.10.
Source: Estimations based on KLIPS.

49Estimations show that among currently working wage earners, those working in the public sector are more likely to become a parent than those working in the private sector. This is expected. Women employed in the public sector are usually protected by employment insurance, and their jobs are more stable and regular. Besides, since 2001 they have had more opportunity than others to benefit from the three-month paid maternity leave and the additional parental leave. Moreover, they are most often guaranteed their previous job or one of similar status when they return to the labour market after childbearing. Employment stability gives these women a sense of security to proceed with childbearing without fear of losing their job. In order to determine how motherhood entry by job characteristics has changed over time, we need to study the results from the interaction models.

Interaction between employment status and motherhood entry

50The interaction models with calendar year and woman’s employment status are depicted in Figure 4. It presents relative risks of motherhood entry by employment status and calendar period. The trends for women who quit their job and those remaining in the labour force are practically unchanged during the first three calendar periods, but decline for both these groups after the early 1990s. The trend decline for quitters is constant and steep, while for stayers it is relatively weak. During the 1980s, women who had left the labour market had a strikingly higher likelihood of becoming a mother than did women who remained in a job. This difference had almost disappeared towards the end of the study.

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 4

Interaction effect of employment status and calendar period on motherhood entry, standardized for other factors, South Korea (reference category: employed, 1998-2002)
Source: Estimations based on KLIPS.

51These results show that when marriage and taking care of the family were considered a woman’s main responsibilities, most women followed social expectations to leave the labour market upon becoming a mother. However, women’s growing labour market involvement in recent years is challenging this traditional practice, and fewer women now give up work at an early stage of family formation. Instead, women have become more likely to stay in employment up to or during pregnancy. This may be one strategy used by working women to reduce their opportunity costs of having children. Men’s appreciation of the advantages of a working wife may also have contributed to this new phenomenon.

52In the late 1970s, women with no employment experience had relatively high risks of becoming a mother, only slightly lower than those of women who had left the labour force. However, since the early 1980s they have become the group least likely to become a mother. This trend is continuous, except for a slight reversal during the economic downturn in 1998-2002. The results imply that with the educational expansion, the experience of becoming a mother before obtaining employment experience has become less relevant. The arrival of the financial crisis in the late 1990s seems to have influenced these women’s life career. When the country’s economy turned sluggish and the job market slipped into stagnation, instead of waiting in vain for a job opportunity a group of women with no labour market experience opted to become parents instead.

53Figure 5 presents estimations of the interactive effect of calendar period and workplace sector. The first-birth trend of public employees follows the standard trend discovered in the first models: it remains relatively stable during the 1980s and then declines steadily from the early 1990s onward. In comparison, private-sector employees follow a different trend. During the economic boom periods from the 1970s to the late 1990s, their first birth intensity increased, before plummeting during the economic downturn of 1998-2002. It is apparent that women employed in the public sector, who hold stable and more regular jobs, have a higher likelihood of motherhood entry than have women working in the private sector. During the late 1970s and the 1980s the type of workplace made a great difference to motherhood transition, but this difference gradually shrank to almost nothing during the period 1993-1997 before re-emerging in the economic downturn after the 1997 financial crisis.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 5

Interaction effect of employment sector and calendar period on motherhood entry of currently employed wage earners, standardized for other factors, South Korea (reference category: private sector, 1998-2002)
Source: Estimations based on KLIPS.

54The results suggest that employment stability has been an important correlate of motherhood entry. For women in the public sector, it may give them a sense of security in deciding to proceed with childbearing. Besides, public employees may have been the main beneficiaries of the family policy reform on maternity/parental leave introduced in 2001. By contrast, private sector employees are less likely to enter motherhood; their childbearing behaviour seems to be more sensitive to the business cycle.

55A number of other interaction models were tested, but no evidence of further interaction effects was found. For example, the interaction of employment status, educational attainment and calendar year shows that once married, more highly educated women are more likely to become a mother during most of the observation time, irrespective of their employment status. Women’s job characteristics were also specified with other variables, such as employed women’s monthly income. This reveals that, all else being equal, high earners are generally slightly more likely than other women to become a mother (these results are not shown but are available upon request).


56Research on employment and motherhood entry has mainly focused on countries in the West. It demonstrates that relationships differ by context. Social polices under different welfare regimes arguably mediate the relationships. In the Nordic countries where social policies support women’s labour force participation and make it easier to reconcile work and motherhood, the transition to parenthood is not as difficult as in countries of Southern Europe where women’s traditional role is upheld and institutional support for women’s work-family balance is limited.

57Based on individual-level data, this study explores the relationship between employment and fertility in South Korea, a society whose welfare system depends on the principles of familism. On the whole, patterns of motherhood transition in Korea display features that are unique to Korea as well as characteristics that are similar to those observed in the West.

58A general decline in motherhood entry is discerned. When marital status is taken into consideration it becomes clear that since the 1990s, marriage postponement and decline have contributed to the decrease in first births over the same period. In a society where childbearing is tightly bound to marriage, decline of marriage for either voluntary or involuntary reasons contributes strongly to lowering fertility, but this is not the only factor at play. Increased costs of educating children, and the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s may also have depressed first births in the 1990s and thereafter.

59Women who have left the labour market have a significantly higher first birth intensity than do women still in the labour force and women with no employment experience. Leaving the labour market at an early stage of family formation has been a common practice, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. However, this practice has been challenged in recent years, and staying in the labour force until and during pregnancy has started gaining prevalence. During the 1970s and 1980s, marriage and childbearing were highly valued concepts; it was women’s essential duty to carry on the husband’s family line. Traditional gender roles prevailed and, under Korea’s familistic welfare regime, women were expected to assume responsibility for household chores and to provide care to the old and young. Leaving the labour market upon family formation was socially expected. However, women have become increasingly economically independent in recent years, so giving up career opportunities for domestic roles at an early stage of family life may have become more difficult. Some opt to keep working up to and during pregnancy to minimize the potential opportunity cost. Men’s acknowledgement of the value of a working wife, especially after the outbreak of the financial crisis, is also a likely contributor to this new phenomenon.

60Among wage earners, women employed in the public sector, who usually hold more stable and regular employment positions, have higher motherhood entry rates than women working in the private sector. This pattern holds throughout our observation period. The results suggest that employment stability has been of great importance to motherhood entry in Korea. Further, the recently introduced maternity/parental leave with income compensation and job protection may have supported public employees’ motherhood transitions. Women employed in the private sector have relatively lower risks of becoming a mother; their childbearing behaviour is more sensitive to the business cycle. These findings resemble those of some developed countries in the West such as the Nordic countries and France in Europe, implying that employment stability provides women with a sense of security to proceed with childbearing.

61In many respects, Korea’s family policy development has been slow. Among the three policy pillars promoted by the OECD to help women reconcile work and family responsibilities (paid leave after childbirth with job protection, childcare services, and opportunities to work flexible hours), Korea’s progress has been far from sufficient. Since 2008, however, childcare services have been considerably expanded and leave benefits have increased. These welfare improvements may have made it easier for women to reconcile work and family responsibilities in Korea. However, the data used in this study only continue to 2007. To get a more complete picture of the employment-fertility relationship in Korea, further research is needed. For this to happen, additional data must be collected for this very crucial period of social change in Korea.

62The relationship between employment and fertility is complex. This study addresses only one direction of this relationship in the context of Korea. In recent years, Korean women’s labour force attachment has become increasingly strong. Women who become mothers are struggling over whether, and when, to return to the labour force. This is another issue to be addressed in future research.


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Gunnar Andersson for his constant advice during the development of this study. Great thanks also go to Gerda Neyer, Elizabeth Thomson, Minja Choe, James Raymo, Jan Hoem, Ann-Zofie Duvander, Jungho Kim, and my colleagues at the Stockholm University Demography Unit for their comments and discussions. I would also like to express appreciation to the anonymous reviewers, whose valuable comments and suggestions improved my manuscript. An earlier version of the paper benefited from comments by participants at the IUSSP International Seminar on “Patterns of Economic Development, Social Change and Fertility Decline in Comparative Perspective: Analysis and Policy Implications” in Shanghai, May 25-28, 2012.

Women exposed to the risk of first conception. Descriptive statistics of control variables

tableau im11
Person-time Events Woman-months  % First conceptions %  Woman’s age 15-19 271,453 30 119 4 20-24 276,765 31 1,312 39 25-29 151,084 17 1,604 48 30-34 74,428 8 282 8 35-39 63,607 7 48 1 40-44 67,109 7 5 0 Education In education 287,991 32 27 1 Elementary school 109,329 12 255 8 Middle school 89,264 10 457 14 High school 277,660 31 1,717 51 College 60,541 7 374 11 University or above 79,661 9 540 16 Religion None 411,840 46 1,418 42 Buddhist 197,639 22 826 25 Protestant 207,780 23 804 24 Catholic 75,634 8 276 8 Other 11,553 1 46 1 Childhood residence Seoul 312,410 35 917 27 Metropolitan areas 171,737 19 582 17 Other provinces 420,299 46 1,871 56 Father’s education Low 411,201 45 1,850 55 Middle 376,605 42 1,210 36 High 116,640 13 310 9 Mother’s education Low 659,667 73 2,729 81 Middle 222,526 25 603 18 High 22,253 2 38 1 Marital status Single 656,846 73 1,135 34 First marriage 230,850 26 2,224 66 Disrupted 16,126 2 9 0 Later marriages 624 0 2 0 Total 904,446 100 3,370 100 Source: KLIPS (1998-2007).

Women exposed to the risk of first conception. Descriptive statistics of control variables


  • [1]
    Total fertility rate indicates the number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if she were to experience the current period age-specific fertility rates (ASFRs) throughout her childbearing years.
  • [2]
    Cram schools used to be illegal in Korea as they were believed to promote social inequality. In the 1990s, however, they received government approval and have exploded in popularity ever since (Anderson and Kohler, 2013). According to OECD (2007), private after-school education can cost up to about USD 25,000 per child per annum.
  • [3]
    The employment rate indicates the proportion in employment within a given population.
  • [4]
    According to Lee (1998) and Choe et al. (2004), female education in Korea mainly carries a symbolic meaning; it is more useful for selecting a husband than for finding employment.
  • [5]
    In the same year, the childcare participation rate for children aged below three was 62% in Denmark and 45% in Sweden.
  • [6]
    Seoul, or the Seoul Special City, is the capital and largest city of South Korea. The Seoul National Capital Area includes the Incheon metropolis and most of Gyeonggi province. Around half of Korea’s population lives in the Seoul National Capital Area and almost a quarter in Seoul itself.
  • [7]
    In this article, the term “conception of the first live birth” may be substituted with, “motherhood entry”.
  • [8]
    The last survey wave was conducted around April to June 2007. Because timing was moved back from first birth to first live conception, no events occur in 2007. For the same reason, the number of events in 2006 is influenced by the nine-month subtraction.
  • [9]
    Descriptive statistics for these variables are shown in the Appendix Table.

This study uses event history analysis to explore the relationship between women’s employment and motherhood entry in the socioeconomic and institutional context of South Korea. Data used for analysis come from waves 1 to 10 of the Korea Labor and Income Panel Study (KLIPS) collected between 1998 and 2007. The study shows that motherhood entry declines during the study period, particularly from the 1990s onward, with marriage postponement and decline arguably contributing to this downtrend. Women who leave the labour market are more likely to become mothers than working women and women with no employment experience. Labour market withdrawal is a signal of family formation and extension. However, this practice has been challenged in recent years, and staying at work up to and during pregnancy has gained prevalence. Among wage earners, women employed in the public sector are more likely than others to become a mother, underlying the importance of employment stability for motherhood entry in Korea. The fertility behaviour of private-sector employees appears to be sensitive to changes in the business cycle.


  • motherhood entry
  • employment status
  • job characteristics
  • social policy
  • South Korea

Emploi et première maternité en Corée du Sud, 1978-2006

Emploi et première maternité en Corée du Sud, 1978-2006

Cet article analyse la relation entre l’emploi des femmes et l’entrée en maternité dans le contexte socio­économique et institutionnel de la Corée du Sud, à partir des données des vagues 1 à 10 du Korea Labor and Income Panel Study (KLIPS) recueillies entre 1998 et 2007. L’étude retrace les comportements de fécondité et d’emploi depuis 1978 en ayant recours à la méthode de l’analyse biographique. L’entrée en maternité se caractérise par une tendance à la baisse, surtout à partir des années 1990. Elle est notamment liée au report et à la diminution des mariages. Les femmes qui quittent leur emploi sont davantage susceptibles de devenir mères que celles qui restent actives ou n’ont pas eu d’expérience professionnelle. Le fait de sortir du marché du travail est souvent le signe de constitution de la famille, mais ce phénomène est remis en cause dans les dernières années. Désormais, rester en activité jusqu’à la grossesse et pendant celle-ci est plus fréquent. Les salariées du secteur public sont davantage susceptibles que les autres de devenir mères, soulignant ainsi l’importance de la stabilité de l’emploi pour l’entrée en maternité en Corée. Le comportement de fécondité des salariées du secteur privé paraît plus sensible aux bouleversements des cycles économiques.


Empleo y primera maternidad en Corea del Sur, 1978-2006

Empleo y primera maternidad en Corea del Sur, 1978-2006

Este articulo utiliza el análisis biográfico para estudiar la relación entre el empleo femenino y la primera maternidad, en el contexto socioeconómico e institucional de Corea del Sur, a partir de los datos de las olas 1 a 10 del Korea Labor and Income Panel Study (KLIPS), colectados entre 1998 y 2007, y que han permitido seguir los comportamientos de fecundidad desde 1978. Las primeras maternidades disminuyen a lo largo del periodo, en particular a partir de los años 1990. Esta baja está probablemente asociada a la desafección creciente por el matrimonio y a su aplazamiento. Las mujeres que abandonan su actividad profesional son más susceptibles de devenir madres que las que siguen activas o que nunca han trabajado. La salida del mercado de trabajo es un signo de formación de la familia y de su extensión. Pero este comportamiento ha sido cuestionado en los últimos años, pues conservar la actividad profesional hasta el embarazo e incluso durante éste, se ha hecho más frecuente. Las mujeres asalariadas del sector público llegan a ser madres más frecuentemente que las otras, lo que pone de manifiesto la importancia de tener un empleo estable para tener hijos. El comportamiento de fecundidad de las mujeres empleadas en el sector privado es sensible a los cambios del ciclo económico.


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Li Ma
Stockholm University Demography Unit, Sweden.
Correspondence: Li Ma, Department of Sociology, Demography Unit, Stockholm University, Universitetsvägen 10B, 106 91 Sweden, email:
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