Newsletter #75: The Toxic Reality of a Post-Familial Society
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For several years now I’ve posted links to family dynamics trends in East Asia. That’s because this is the region of the world where post-familial trends such as delaying or forgoing marriage, never having kids, or just plain low fertility are most advanced. Although we cannot directly apply lessons from what’s happening there to the United States or Europe because we are so culturally different, it still behooves us to watch what is happening there for clues about what could happen here as we follow the same path.
South Korea is a particularly interesting case study. It has the world’s lowest fertility rate, with a total fertility rate or TFR of 0.78 (2.1 is needed just to keep population constant). It has also developed particularly unhealthy gender relations, elements of which we see echoed in our own country. As here, these have even started to carry over into politics.
What we see in South Korea is that post-familialism can produce unhappiness and dysfunctional social and political dynamics. Things are not necessarily fated to play out the same way elsewhere, of course. But the case of South Korean shows that we shouldn’t be blasé about embracing a post-familial future for the United States.
Political scientist Scott Yenor’s recent piece on the country for the May issue of First Things is very interesting. Many traditional explanations of post-familialism and a breakdown in gender relations don’t apply in South Korea. For example, Yenor notes that South Korean in many ways remains a very socially conservative country, much more so than the United States.
According to a certain way of thinking, this should not be happening. South Koreans remain socially conservative in many respects. Among South Koreans, childbearing is still very much connected to marriage. Around 2 percent of children are born out of wedlock, compared to recent estimates of 40 percent in the United States. South Koreans value family honor. The country does not legally recognize same-sex marriage, nor do majorities “accept” homosexuality. South Koreans have sex later than most people do: The average age for women is above twenty-four years, and for men nearly twenty-two, according to a recent study in the World Journal of Men’s Health.
Although feminism is a major force in South Korea today, Yenor argues that it would be ahistoric to blame it for rising post-familialism. Instead, he reverses the arrow of causality, saying, “South Korean feminism is more an effect of anti-natalism than a cause of it.” With no children to raise, South Korean women are almost forced to pursue career and lifestyle alternatives.
And, as the Atlantic article below notes, South Korea is ethnically homogenous, with very low levels of immigration, and does not have the equivalent of the US “woke” movement seeking to culturally displace the incumbent population and its folkways. So those can’t be blamed either.
Instead, Yenor argues that post-familialism was a conscious choice by South Korea’s military dictatorship:
South Korea’s leadership under Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a military coup in May 1961, hoped for women to have fewer children so that the nation might thrive. The hope was realized. As Matthew Connelly documents in his Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, reducing population growth brought a “demographic dividend.” Investments flowed into industry as less money was needed for schools. More women could enter the workplace since fewer were mothering large broods.
Park repudiated the unification policy of South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, in favor of a policy accepting permanent division between North and South Korea. South Korea had to become richer and more powerful in order to protect its future, and this imperative required immediate economic growth. Park anticipated that fertility decline would improve South Korea’s international situation, as had happened in other East Asian countries and Pakistan.
As the contraceptive infrastructure grew, so did cultural efforts to reduce the population. Koreans traditionally supported “money clubs,” which dispensed money to needy families within local communities. The central government and its allies repurposed Money Clubs as Mothers’ Clubs, wherein local female leaders assisted social workers in the government’s efforts to encourage younger women to use contraception. Mothers’ Clubs channeled family planning information and supplies to willing users. South Korea’s Planned Parenthood assisted in the implementation, while the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations provided personnel, pills, and promotional materials. There were more than 12,500 Mothers’ Clubs in 1968, with an average of twenty-three members each; that number ballooned to more than 27,000 in 1976, with more than thirty members each.
Oral contraception was introduced in 1967; abortion was legalized in 1973; tube-tying was normalized in 1976. Park’s government and its successors created incentives for families to have fewer children. In 1974, child tax exemptions were limited to the first three children—then, in 1977, to the first two. In 1984, education subsidies were likewise limited to the first two children. Those sterilized under national programs received priority placement in public housing, better government-sponsored loans for housing, and more income support. Governments provided tax exemptions and public funding for abortions, vasectomies, tube-tying, and oral contraception.
Just as Americans today never stop hearing that “love is love,” South Koreans were inundated with messaging that emphasized “quality over quantity.” The sloganeering began with “three children, three years apart, stop at age thirty-five,” but turned into “just have two and raise them well,” and then “even two is a lot!” South Korea’s public philosophy, not initially informed by the principles of modern feminism or the sexual revolution, emphasized the trials and costs of parenthood in order to encourage fewer people to become parents and people to become parents of fewer.
Note that the government gave preferential treatment in finding housing to those who agreed to be sterilized. In other words, the government was basically paying people to get out of the children business.
Note also that it was not driven by feminist concerns, but economic development and security ones under a non-democratic regime.
This program succeeded all too well. Though the country started to back off of these policies in the 1980s, and lately, like others, has sought to find ways to boost the number of children being born, birth rates have continued declining and declining. It has proven to be much easier to suppress child birth than to promote it.
Post-Familial Cultural Dynamics
A recent Atlantic article also covers what’s happening in South Korea. Unlike Yenor’s piece, this is a clearly feminist tale, which explains South Korea through the lens oppression of women. The author does not go into the history that Yenor covered. But it provides a lot of interesting color about what’s happening there.
By one estimate, more than a third of Korean men and a quarter of Korean women who are now in their mid-to-late 30s will never marry. Even more will never have children. In 1960, Korean women had, on average, six children. In 2022, the average Korean woman could expect to have just 0.78 children in her lifetime. In Seoul, the average is 0.59. If this downward drift continues, it will not be long before one out of every two women in the capital never becomes a parent.
The government views this as a problem, but its attempt to fix it have failed:
The government has tried expanding maternity leave, offering couples bigger and bigger bonuses for having babies, and subsidizing housing in Seoul for newlyweds. The mayor there has proposed easing visa restrictions to import more cheap foreign nannies, while some rural governments fund bachelors seeking foreign brides….In all this time, the country has spent more than $150 billion hoping to coax more babies into the world. None of its efforts are working.
Various online feminist movements have come to the fore in recent years:
Lee is part of a boycott movement in South Korea—women who are actively choosing single life. Their movement—possibly tens of thousands strong, though it’s impossible to say for sure—is called “4B,” or “The 4 No’s.” Adherents say no to dating, no to sex with men, no to marriage, and no to childbirth. (“B” refers to the Korean prefix bi-, which means “no”.) They are the extreme edge of a broader trend away from marriage.
I previously linked to a New York magazine article about this 4B movement, which I labeled a “women going their own way” movement, a female analogue to the American MGTOW online subculture, which advocates avoiding entanglements with women as much as possible. This is but one of many such groups. Again, as with the manosphere, these are online communities that are feminist in orientation:
But many said they had only come to articulate these experiences after encountering feminism—frequently online. They described a moment of awakening, perhaps even radicalization.
For their part, although men do still mostly rule the roost in South Korea, younger men have for some time been doing their own manosphere style online organizing. This has even spilled over into elections:
Last March, Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president on a wave of male resentment. He pledged to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which he said treated men like “potential sex criminals.” And he blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rate, suggesting that it “prevents healthy relationships between men and women,” adding that this was “not a problem that can be solved by giving out government subsidies.”
According to exit polls, nearly 59 percent of men ages 18 to 29 voted for Yoon, while 58 percent of women in that age group voted for the liberal candidate. One commentator declared it the “incel election.” Several people noted to me that in a country as ethnically homogenous as South Korea, the election emphasized the extent to which gender, rather than race or immigration status, has become the key social fault line.
The growing hostility against the other gender by men and women is seen by some as the cause of the country’s falling birth rates:
Distrust and even hatred between women and men, Kim believes, are the key to understanding South Korea’s declining birth rate. It’s not that women are with a partner and “thinking about having one or two more babies,” she told me. “It’s that you just don’t want to be in a relationship with men in Korea.
However, given that the birth rate has been falling for a while, but these online movements are relatively new, one might argue, as Yenor does, that it’s actually childlessness - along with perhaps other factors such as urbanization, centralization of the country into Seoul, and digitization - that’s producing these toxic gender dynamics.
There’s a famous quip attributed to Henry Kissinger that “No one will ever win the battle of the sexes; there's too much fraternizing with the enemy.” South Korea is showing that this isn’t necessarily true.
The Politics of the Definitively Childless
The Atlantic piece shows that the decline in marriage and fertility in South Korea is producing a war between the sexes. It also suggests, but does not explicitly state, that it might also be starting to produce a war between those who have children and those who don’t.
As large numbers of people never marry, and many women become definitively childless at ages 40-45, this seems to produce a psychological change in some people. Until this point, younger people can imagine a future in which some day, perhaps, they will be ready to have kids, or will marry. But as that door actually closes, people need to make a psychological adjustment to their new state.
We don’t have a lot of good data about what happens to a society when more than a quarter of its women never marry, and that cohort has made it into that 40+ definitively childless age bracket. I was born in the late 1960s, when America was still a country where marriage with kids was still basically the norm. And I’m not yet 55. Only 15 years worth of people my age or younger have made it into that definitively childless window, and only a relatively small share of people in those cohorts never married. America may actually avoid the East Asian scenario, with most older Millennials actually pairing off. But over the next 10-20 years we could potentially enter a situation in which a significant share of people over the age of 40 are never married and childless, which likely means permanently childless.
It’s not certain what this would do to the culture or politics, but it’s not hard to imagine a certain percentage of these folks becoming hostile towards families or policies designed to raise birth rates. The Atlantic article mentioned this event in South Korea:
In 2016, the government published a “birth map” online showing how many women of reproductive age lived in different regions—a clumsy attempt to encourage towns and cities to produce more babies. It prompted a feminist protest with women holding banners that read my womb is not a national public good and baby vending machine. The map was taken down.
This backlash may well have been due to the nature of the campaign itself, but it could also been a nascent form of backlash against pro-natalism in general. The author also notes that Seoul is replete with “no kid zones”:
Walking around Seoul, I began to wonder where the children were hiding. Throughout the city, I saw “no-kids zones”—restaurants and cafés with stickers on their door announcing the establishment’s no-kids policy. But the children must be somewhere, right?
She also observes:
One woman, a 4B adherent, said she jokes with her friends that the solution to South Korea’s problems is for the whole country to simply disappear. Thanos, the villain in The Avengers who eliminates half the Earth’s population with a snap of his fingers, didn’t do anything wrong, she told me. Meera Choi, the doctoral student researching gender inequality and fertility, told me she’s heard other Korean feminists make the exact same joke about Thanos. Underneath the joke, I sensed a hopelessness that bordered on nihilism.
Nihilism? Perhaps. But perhaps it’s also that if their own family lines have no future, these feminists don’t want anybody else’s to have a future either.
One characteristic of people today is that they expect to have themselves centered when it comes to public recognition, honor, and benefits. For the childless, pro-natalist policies put other people at the center, a situation some will no doubt be unable to abide.
Could this happen here, too? Consider the case of Sarah Jones, who wrote a recent viral article for New York magazine called “Children Are Not Property The idea that underlies the right-wing campaign for ‘parents’ rights.’” As you can surmise, she’s very hostile to the idea that parents have the rights to raise their kids as they wish, saying that children area a “public responsibility.” (Elsewhere she has also criticized the nuclear family).
Jones notes that she was raised evangelical and is now “an atheist and a socialist.” A negative reaction to her religious upbringing surely animates part of that article. But it’s also notable that she’s childless and openly embraces the label “childless cat lady.” Having no children of her own, it’s curious that she’s so interested in curtailing the rights of those who do have children to raise them as they see fit. I’m not sure those two are entirely unrelated.
I wouldn’t read too much into these examples. But it’s not hard to see that permanent singleness and/or childlessness will have social and even political effects. And just as rising singleness in South Korean turned some men and women against the other gender, rising permanent childlessness could unleash hostility by the childless against those with children (and maybe even the other direction too).
And as South Korea shows, one these dynamics take effect, reversing them becomes very difficult indeed.
These articles, in First Things, the Atlantic, and New York Magazine, as well as others that I’ve previously linked in places like Foreign Policy, Unherd, and The Guardian provide a disturbing picture of a post-familial society turning toxic. Let’s hope this future doesn’t reach our shores.
Related: A Twitter thread from a young Korean on why she doesn’t plan to have kids. The author is the Asia Entertainment Editor for the AP.
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Cultural Watershed Moment: The Gold Collar Generation
Around 2005 there were some articles making reference to what was called the “gold collar generation.” These were early 20s, educated adults who were consuming at levels well above their income, at least as would have been understood by previous generations. From the article I linked:
They find solace in $325 Christian Dior sunglasses, a shot of confidence in a $600 Louis Vuitton handbag. Never mind that they still live with their parents and earn a modest salary in service jobs. For these working-class young adults, luxury is not just for the rich. Just ask Danielle Garcia, a receptionist at Kaiser Permanente who is in the midst of planning her lavish 24th birthday bash for 75 friends at the trendy Vault nightclub in downtown San Jose, Calif.
The age group they describe as gold collar were born between 1980 and 1987. In other words, this was the first generation of Millennial young professionals.
It’s almost a trope to mock Millennials for complaining about how they can’t afford a home while chowing down on an $18 avocado toast. This is a bit unfair in that Millennials were financially challenged for reasons outside of their control, and they have faced a tougher housing market than their predecessors did. Skimping on breakfast wasn’t going to bridge that gap.
At the same time, there’s also something real about the stereotype of the college-educated Millennial as someone who feels entitled to be consume at very high quality levels.
I’m sure my own Generation X lived large in the 90s by the standards of the Boomers, but the media was right to pick up on something shifting with the arrival of the Millennials. Much of what we associate with city life or upper middle class consumption patterns is really the consumption preferences of the Millennials. And the shift to their preferences started to really reshape the world circa 2005 when they entered the workforce and young adulthood.
This makes 2005 a watershed period. Looking back retrospectively, articles about the gold collar generation were telling us that something significant was afoot. Not all style and trend articles are ultimately meaningless. Some of them signal more substantive shifts such as generational transition.
I’ve written fourteen novels, and if there’s one thing my writing has to be, for me, it has to be truthful. What I write has to be truthful. I’ve wanted that to apply to my whole life too, in my relationships with other people, my relationship with myself. I broke off with my mother for two years, three months and four days when I was about thirty, because I couldn’t feel myself when she was around or when I spoke to her on the phone. All I could feel then was her. Or the person I thought was her, what she was inside me, regardless, I no longer knew what I felt inside. It was either me or her. And so I broke off with her, because I needed to be with myself first. To grow strong inside so I didn’t disappear when she was around. All those counseling sessions, all those body treatments and all that meditation and analyzing my dreams. Carl Gustav Jung said somewhere that all we can hope for on our journey through life is an ego strong enough to endure the truth about ourselves. And I’m under no illusion that I see the full and complete truth about myself, but one thing I do know is that I have a compulsion for truth that feels like my very life force itself. And that it makes me ill when I go against that force, when I go against myself.
- Hanne Orstavik, Ti Amo
For more on Hanne Orstavik, literature, and truth, see newsletter #74.
Cover image credit: By Joon Kyu Park - CC BY-SA 3.0
Regarding S. Korea, government policy of contraception and sterilization is unlikely to be prime driver of lower birth rate. Rather in the period of rapid economic growth, extreme pressure to get kids into college led to exorbitant spending on test preparation outside of school. High cost of education was much stronger driver of having fewer kids.
From what I understand, permanent celibacy and spinsterhood was common in Europe prior to the Baby Boom years. Those years are exceptional, not the years prior, at least for European countries (and some settler colonial nations like Australia and Canada). Most societies have had universal, very early marriage, but Europe didn't. I think the rates of permanently unmarried people were as high as 15%, and much higher for people in their 20s. During the Baby Boom there was a dramatic but brief shift to younger age at marriage and more universal marriage. So I'm sure I agree that this situation is unprecedented. What is unprecedented is married people not having children, or only having one child.