She turned to podcasting to talk about the joys as well as the pressures of living unattached in South Korea’s still marriage-oriented society. Her conversation about “bihon,” a new Korean term meaning “voluntarily celibate,” is part of a larger discussion that challenges cultural images of the Asian nation and government policies that favor married life over celibacy.
A record 40% of households now consist of just one person, and the country’s marriage and fertility rates have fallen to historic lows. Official statistics show that some 193,000 marriages were registered in 2021, down nearly 10% from the previous year and the fewest since record keeping began in 1970. The number of births has also decreased to 5 per 1,000 people, putting South Korea at the bottom of the list. developed countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Demographic trends – which are also happening in neighboring countries like Japan and China – have raised concerns about depopulation, a shrinking workforce and a shrinking economy. Officials and experts attribute the decline to young people, especially women, who prioritize personal freedom and careers over a traditional family lifestyle.
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These changes are behind the government-sponsored dating nights taking place across South Korea, especially in the rapidly aging countryside. Seoul’s central government has designated 89 counties and cities as “population decline areas” and has allocated 1 trillion won ($700.73 million) a year to support matchmaking efforts and boost marriage and childbearing.
Demographics even shape the decisions of private companies that cater to adults in their 30s and 40s. Housing companies are now renting single rooms in shared apartments. Restaurants with mini grills offer solo Korean barbecue, more usually served as a raucous communal affair. Technology service providers are developing personal safety apps for people living alone, with women being their primary target.
Yet young women here, though more educated and employed than ever, continue to face workplace discrimination once they cross the traditional age line of marriage and children. They suffer from unequal pay, harassment and a lack of upward mobility, all of which are reasons why the socially conservative country has ranked for years in The Economist’s annual glass ceiling index.
And domestic and family tasks still fall mostly to women, whose professional ambitions are often sacrificed for their husbands and children. Faced with difficult choices, some give up marriage altogether.
Gwak decided that she wanted to “define what my life is and will be on my own terms”. She remembers being told that her decision was “selfish” and that she would “end up alone”.
Many men also think twice about marriage, some because they enjoy the independence of being single, others because of the stress of being the main, if not the sole, breadwinner in the family. According to a government survey of more than 10,000 South Koreans last year, pressure from men as breadwinners still tops the list of reasons a generation is turning away from marriage.
Such feelings resonate with Park Jong-young, who recently attended a matchmaking party hosted by the rural county where he lives in South Gyeongsang Province. The 35-year-old firefighter had met a few women through his friends, but they struck him as “aloof and picky”.
“My parents and family are pestering me to find a wife, but it’s harder than I expected,” he said. “And I’m not even sure I want [marriage] as much.”
In Japan, abortion is legal, but most women need their husband’s consent.
While virtual interactions were ubiquitous during the pandemic, dating apps have yet to become mainstream in South Korea, in part due to the cultural preference for connecting in person. Park said he signed up for the county meet because he felt “secure and less awkward since everyone here knows what to expect.”
Each participant first filled out a form asking for their age, address, place of work and function. The answers were checked by Hamyang County officials, then a sheet listing the names and job titles of 18 men and 16 women was distributed at the start of the party.
“It’s more reliable than online dating, and people feel more relaxed mingling than in individual situations,” said Kang Suk-soon, the county’s population policy official.
At the scenic hill station where the dinner took place, guests played ice-breaker games and rotated between tables for speed-dating conversations — all organized and paid for by the county. “No rush, no worries,” announced the emcee. “We are going to organize a chance for you all to meet during the day.”
Hamyang and dozens of other rural counties offer multimillion-won cash incentives to encourage local bachelors to marry, with additional cash rewards if they have children. Despite these measures, the number of babies born in Hamyang fell below 100 for the first time last year. Social scientists argue that one-off events and inducements are not enough to convince young people to marry as long as patriarchy persists so strongly in marriage.
“The government is still concerned about marriage as a fundamental institution and uses it as a basis for providing social benefits to citizens, which is disrespectful and discriminatory towards the new generation of Koreans seeking alternatives,” he said. Lee You-na, a researcher at a Seoul-based institute that focuses on family composition, equality and rights. “They’ve moved on and we won’t talk to them easily. bring back what they see as an outdated institution.
Some officials are calling for systemic changes. Single Koreans are largely excluded from social services that focus on traditional family units. Cha Hae-young, councilor for Mapo District in Seoul and the country’s first openly LGBT elected official, encourages a “singles collective” that would meet the social needs of people living outside traditional family structures.
Cha, 35, has been at the forefront of community building in the district, where nearly half of households consist of just one person. It all started with an oversized watermelon that she decided to share with other single neighbors. She then opened her home’s kitchen as a “restaurant” so single people could gather, eat together and check in with each other.
“We envision a society where individuals do not have to rely on kinship or marital ties to receive care,” Cha said. “Married or not, we deserve it.”