For Park Hyun-ah, 30, life was always meant to follow a certain trajectory.
After graduating from high school, she went on to a prestigious university, after which she was certain she would pass the bar exam or land a high-paying, stable job. Fierce competition obstructed both options, and Park entered graduate school.
Having at least tackled the hurdles of education, the next rite of passage was employment. But after a year of job seeking, Lee remained jobless. Last month, she nabbed a contract-based position at a state-run organisation. Employment was somewhat taken care of.
Park is now faced with that final task in what traditionally has been considered a well-rounded Korean’s life – marriage. But like a growing number of Koreans, she has lost confidence in the institution as an inevitable step in life.
“Growing up, I never questioned the fact I would get married,” Park told The Korea Herald. “But then again, a lot of things I never questioned turned out differently. These days, I’ve become more and more fearful of marriage.”
According to statistics released by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, 41 per cent of Seoulites surveyed said they regarded marriage as “a question of choice rather than obligation” in 2014, compared to 28.9 per cent in 2006. Those who felt that marriage was a “must” decreased from 23.5 per cent in 2006 to 13.5 per cent in 2014.
The number of registered marriages continues to fall, according to Statistics Korea. Some 430,000 marriages were registered in 1996, whereas in 2011, the number fell to 300,000. In 2017, only 260,000 cases were registered.
The hike in the number of one-person households also stands out. As of 2016, some 5.4 million Koreans live alone, a figure that has more than doubled since 2000’s 2.2 million, according to Statistics Korea.
Blogger Lee Min-ji is adamant in her objection to marriage. She hopes to devote her life entirely to self-development and her career. The need for affection is wholly satisfied by dating, she says.
“I have a boyfriend of seven years, and the first thing people ask me is, ‘Why date for so long if you don’t want to get married’?” she said. “But the two are completely different things.”
For Lee, marriage means having to take on another set of unwanted parents, being weighed down by chores, pregnancy, raising children, having fingers pointed at for being an overbearing parent and constantly being anxious over the possibility of the spouse’s infidelity, all the while holding down a job.
“Rationally, in terms of pros and cons, there are very few reasons to enter into marriage,” she said.
In an April poll conducted by job postings sites Job Korea and Albamon, 15 per cent of the 1,141 adult Korean males and females surveyed said they would never marry. Another 15 per cent said they planned to get married. But the large majority was ambivalent, replying that though they did not want to marry for now, they could possibly become open to the idea if their financial situation or mindset changed.
In the poll, those leaning toward single lives cited “freedom and the ability to enjoy time for oneself” as the biggest appeal. A large portion of men cited the financial burden as a reason to forgo marriage. Women said they worried they would not be able to invest in themselves, in terms of career, self-development and leisure, upon marrying.
Lee Joon-hee, 27, who works at a tech company, wavers back and forth on the notion of marriage. Having lived on his own for several years, he finds the idea of a welcoming home and family appealing. But the thought of living with another person in the same space, sharing their most intimate moments, is daunting. “It’s not that I love being alone, but I’ve grown so accustomed to it,” he said.
Celebrities on TV have also taken to voicing their fears of wedlock. In the April 19 broadcast of tvN’s talk show “Life Bar,” actor Kim Hee-won confessed that he was “not really interested” in searching for a wife.
“If you want to live comfortably, live alone. If you want to live happily, get married. But it takes a lot of effort and sacrifice,” said comedian Shin Dong-yup, who got married in 2006. Actor Kim replied, “That makes me so sad. ... I don’t think I’m ready to make that sacrifice.”
On an MBN cable talk show, singer Lee Bon talked about her fear of taking responsibility. She has a boyfriend of 10 years, she said. “But I don’t feel confident that I can be responsible for another person. Would I be able to treat [his] parents well?” she questioned.
The generation of Koreans roughly aged 25-35 has enjoyed a “monopoly” of many things, both material and emotional, while growing up, according to Kim Sung-sam, professor of psychology at Daegu Haany University. Protecting their own lifestyle and self-satisfaction are therefore of the utmost value to young Koreans, he noted.
“Often growing up alone or with few siblings, there was little need to sacrifice their own individuality or future prospects for others,” he said. “That lifestyle continues into adulthood.”
With a heightened sense of self, many fear repeating their parents’ mistakes such as being too distant or overbearing. “They’re cautious about how they appear to others, and that extends to family,” Kim added.
For others, the issues with marriage are much more tangible. The majority of male interviewees, who requested anonymity, said they could not marry because they did not have the ability to cover the expenses of a wedding, housing and children’s education.
“I don’t have a stable or high-paying job. My parents aren’t wealthy. I don’t see how I could support an entire family,” one interviewee said.
What many Koreans previously considered a “normal” life – that of a married couple and the family that follows – has become increasingly elusive today, requiring painstaking effort and skill, writes Kim Hong-joong, professor of sociology at Seoul National University, in his 2016 book titled “The Force of Breaking Down Sociological Imagination” (unofficial translation). “The unpredictability of a long-term narrative of life and vision for the future has now become normal,” he writes.
If the ideas of getting married, giving birth and raising children were formerly considered areas of the emotion or affection, they have now “transitioned into problematic areas [of life] that need to be managed,” Kim says.
It would be reasonable to assume that such a shift in 20- and 30-something Koreans’ lifestyle would lead to a transformation in the conventional format of marriage. But of the decreasing number of young Koreans who do enter into matrimony, most follow in the paths of tradition, said Koo Jung-woo, professor of sociology at Sungkyunkwan University.
“Statistics show that those who do marry seek spouses with similar financial status, seeing marriage as, among others, a means to reproduce wealth, or as a merging of families,” he said. “For now, marriage is still easier for those willing to follow in their parents’ footsteps, those who want to live according to those traditional norms.”
At a policy level, a dual approach of simultaneously encouraging marriage and offering a social system for integrating the growing number of singles is needed, Koo said. Diversifying the forms of marriage is a start. “We could allow more benefits for de facto marriages as one type of compromise.”