Photo/Illutration A waiting room in a Seoul hospital, previously dedicated exclusively to pediatrics, appears deserted on a weekday afternoon in March 2021. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

SEOUL--South Korea’s dwindling fertility rate dropped to a new low in 2021, as many worry the country’s economic slowdown and overheated housing market have made it too expensive to have kids.

The latest figure, representative of the number of children a woman is expected to give birth to in her lifetime, dropped to 0.81.

While the latest number is provisional, it marks the lowest it has been since 1970, the first time the data was recorded.

South Korea’s national statistics agency released the new figure on Feb. 23. It shows a decline of 0.03 point from the previous year, when it was 0.84, and marks the fourth year in a row it has clocked in below 1.

South Korea is the only country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with a fertility rate lower than 1, and it is exceptionally low compared to Japan’s 2020 rate of 1.34.

According to the agency, the birthrate among people younger than 35 declined because people are marrying later in life and on average are waiting longer to have children.

Due to the rapidly declining birthrate, South Korea’s population took a downward turn for the first time in 2020. In 2021, the population fell by about 57,300 from the previous year.

The South Korean government, under President Moon Jae-in, established measures at the end of 2020 to deal with the decline in births.

This year the government started providing a monthly allowance of 300,000 won (28,000 yen, or $250) to parents who have a newborn until the child reaches the age of 1.

Most of the government’s measures are focused on helping parents with infants, such as free child care and support for parental leave.

But the measures have not been enough to eliminate the anxieties of young people worried about their children's future, from their education to job hunting, leaving many thinking twice about getting married and having kids.

And despite the fact that the country’s presidential election is scheduled for March 9, the difficult-to-tackle issue has so far remained on the backburner throughout the campaign.

The main candidates have pledged to end the decline in births, but they have not prescribed a solution and talk about the matter has remained shallow.

Conspicuously absent from a Feb. 21 TV debate themed on the economy was any kind of discussion over policy measures that would deal with the declining birthrate.

Cho Young-tae, a professor who specializes in demographics at Seoul National University, said the birthrate will not bounce back unless the fundamental issues are solved, such as the grueling competition during school entrance exams, the difficulty of finding employment and the high number of people looking to take up residency in Seoul to work at a major company.

The professor said each candidate is probably aware that anything they pledge now will not resolve the issue, thereby making them unwilling to discuss it publicly.