By Lee Hyo-sik
The number of young people attending elementary- to university-level schools here is likely to drop below 10 million in 2010 for the first time in 46 years due to the rapidly falling birthrate.
Statistics Korea forecast Friday that the number of young people aged 6-21 will mark 9.9 million by December, down from 10.06 million in 2009. The number will be the lowest since 1964 when Korea had 9.92 million students and young people attending school.
Following the 1950-53 Korea War, the nation experienced a baby boom, pushing up the school-age population to over 10 million for the first time in 1965 at 10.4 million.
But after peaking at 14.4 million in 1980, the number has been declining as a result of population control measures designed by the government to cut birthrates in the 1960s and 1970s.
Additionally, the nation's rapid industrialization and the growing number of women entering the workforce raised Korea's living standards but also contributed to a decrease in the number of newborns.
In 1970, the birthrate - the average number of babies per woman aged 15-49 - stood at 4.54, but fell sharply to 1.56 in 1989.
In 2005, the country recorded its lowest rate of 1.08 but this rebounded slightly to 1.13 in 2006 and 1.25 in 2007. The birthrate fell again in 2008 to 1.19.
With more married couples becoming unwilling to have children due to rising childcare costs and unstable financial conditions, the statistical office projected that the school-age population will continue to decrease in the future.
The figure is expected to decline to 8.72 million in 2012, and further to 7.91 million in 2018 and 6.99 million in 2022.
"The rapidly falling number of school-aged children these days is the result of a drop in the number of newborns in the mid-1980s. The nation should mobilize all possible means in order to raise the birthrate to maintain long-term economic viability," a Statistics Korea official said.
The government has introduced a range of measures to boost childbirth in recent years, including provision of cash subsidies for infertility treatments and childcare expenses.
But they have failed to increase the birthrate as more young Koreans continue to delay marriage due to financial and other reasons.
Those aged between 6-11, mostly elementary school students, are expected to total 3.3 million in 2010, down from 4.2 million in 2002. The figure will likely go down further to 2.94 million in 2012.
The number of middle school students aged between 12-14 began declining in 2008 and is expected to reach 1.96 million this year, while high-school and university students will begin heading downward in 2011 and 2014, respectively.
After peaking at 49.34 million in 2018, Korea's population is expected to fall to 48.63 million in 2030 and 42.34 million in 2050.