Transcript: Anna Louie Sussman
My interview with the award-winning American journalist
On the Lean Out podcast, we delve into the subjects that don’t get talked about enough in society. And one of the topics that’s still considered third rail is women’s fertility — even as the birth rate in Canada has dropped to a record low. My guest on the podcast this week writes a lot about this issue. She recently published a fascinating piece on South Korea, which has the lowest fertility rate in the world.
Anna Louie Sussman is an award-winning journalist who reports on gender, economics, reproduction, and health. Her recent piece for The Atlantic is titled, “The Real Reason South Koreans Aren’t Having Babies.”
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Anna, welcome to Lean Out.
ALS: Thank you so much for having me, Tara.
TH: It’s so nice to have you on. I’ve been really looking forward to our conversation. I think it’s such important work that you’re doing. You’ve been writing about gender, economics, reproduction, and health for some time now, and you’ve explored the issue of fertility for a number of outlets. Including The New York Times, in a Sunday review piece titled “The End of Babies.” I encourage everyone to read it. It does such a good job of showing the complexity of this issue. Your recent piece for The Atlantic is about South Korea, which has the lowest birth rate in the world. This is also a complicated story, with a number of factors at play here. But set this up for us, what are the broad strokes of what’s going on in South Korea?
ALS: So, as you said, it has the lowest fertility rate in the world. And I think whenever you have a country or a place that’s at the extreme, it’s worth looking and seeing what’s going on there. There are a number of things that will sound familiar to people listening in wealthier, industrialized countries. In Seoul in particular, there’s a very high cost of housing. Korea has a very competitive educational culture, where a lot of parents feel they have to pay for cram schools, and that gets really expensive. It’s also not very fun to go through. If you listen to young people who have come out of that system, they talk about not wanting to subject a child to that. But I think one thing that’s been under-explored is how relations between women and men have deteriorated. And I don’t think that’s actually unique to South Korea.
One thing that made me want to learn more about what was going on there was, you know, there’s other metrics you can use to investigate the divergence in values between women and men. So, for example, the gender voting gap, which we have in the U.S. I remember I was doing some reporting in Poland in 2019, and a poll came out while I was there that showed young men and young women — I believe a poll of people in their 20s — were really gravitating towards quite different political parties. The men were going towards more conservative, and even far-right, parties. And women were increasingly saying they favoured green parties, or more progressive parties. I remember seeing that and thinking, “That’s not going to bode well for dating. They’re going to go on a date and realize they hold perhaps very different views of gender roles, or of the role of the state and society, or whatever. And that might not make for compatibility in relationships where they want to, for example, raise a kid with certain values that they share.” I thought, “Maybe this is something happening globally.” In South Korea, I was reading news coverage that indicated this was quite extreme there. I wanted to learn more about it. Because it’s also a very challenging thing to address from a policy perspective, and not something that is easy to address in a short-term context either.
TH: It’s so interesting. In the piece you point out that it was actually hard to find men to speak to you about this trend. So let’s talk about the women that you spoke to, and start there. What were you hearing from the women that you interviewed?
ALS: I spoke to a lot of women, mostly in their 20s and 30s. Some called themselves feminists. Some were radical feminists. I was doing another story for a different publication about a movement called 4B. Or, it’s also called the Four Nos. It’s women who are saying no to dating men, to sexual relationships with men, to marriage, and to childbirth. Those women naturally were more, you could say, extreme or radical in their feminism, in their attitudes towards men. They basically considered Korean men almost irredeemably misogynist, and they didn’t want to engage with them at all. But then I met other women who, even if they didn’t call themselves feminist, they might say, “It’s not really worth dating. Or, “I think a Korean guy would want me to stay home and I’ve got my career and that doesn’t sound appealing to me.” So, there was a broad range of attitudes and reactions, but I didn’t meet a lot of people who were dreaming of marriage and childbirth. That was not a sentiment that was widely shared.
I think I talked to 7 guys and 31 women — that’s just formal interviews. I had other informal conversations with a lot of people. But yeah, formal interviews, it was about four and a half times as many women as men. There was one professor, he teaches at law and medical faculties, and he had asked some of his students if they would talk to me. None of them said they would speak to me, but they told him how they were feeling about gender relations. They expressed a lot of mistrust, and a lack of enthusiasm for dating or meeting women. They thought that women wanted them to pay for things. That there were still these expectations of them to be breadwinners. And they weren’t sure what exactly they were getting in exchange. They thought women might want them to buy them a home. But then maybe they wouldn’t stay home and raise kids there; they also wanted to work. So, there just seemed to be a mismatch in terms of expectations and goals among women and men. And then the women that I talked to, like I said, there was such a broad range of reactions. But a lot of it boiled down to: “I don’t think I need a man in my life, and I’m not sure there’s a Korean guy out there for me.”
TH: You also spoke to a Yale doctoral student about this situation in South Korea and they referred to it as a “crisis of heterosexuality.” Pulling back now, you had referred to the idea that this is not just South Korea, that this is happening all over the world. I know you’re very interested in the global context. Talk to me about signs elsewhere in the world that you’re seeing of this dynamic.