Not Tying the Knot in Korea

Korea's value for marriage can be recognised from the popular saying: "A person becomes an adult only after marriage", which is broadly used in the country. This reveals that the culture often sees being married as the equivalent of being an adult. Moreover, there is the obvious influence of Confucianism in South Korea which considers marriage to be essential for maintaining bloodlines. 

The Sampo Generation ( 삼포세대 ) however, disagrees. Sampo Generation, which literally translates to 'giving up on three, generation' is the younger generation of the country who are giving up on dating, marriage and having children. If we look at the statistics over the last three decades (1981-2011), the average age of marriage for South Korean women has increased by six years (23.0 to 29.1), a year more than it has for men (26.4 to 31.9). Furthermore, there has also been a drastic increase in single households (9% in 1990 to 26% in 2013). What are the factors that have led to such an increase?

Korea, as a society, stereotypically preferred sons to daughters. While daughters were prepared for their future roles as mothers and wives, education for women was not thought to be as important as it was for men. However, there were also social groups like the Gisaengs. The Gisaengs first appeared in the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and were often historically misrepresented to be only entertainers for the rich and upper class, but, in actuality, they were intelligent and extraordinarily skilled women, who can be compared to today's professionally-trained and educated women.

Women, after first democratic Korea was established, got increased opportunities to pursue education and engage in other economic activities. Now women are successful in every field: from business to law, and from science to architecture. But successful careers could also entail increased working hours. According to a report by OECD, on average, a South Korean person works about 38.9 hours a week, ranking the nation third among 37 countries. 

Increased working hours lead to disinterest in dating or the inability to maintain existing relationships. A successful position in any industry for a woman comes with the fear of having to abandon it after her marriage. Marriage would mean the addition of another family (her in-laws) and the pressure of having a baby. Even if a working female decides to have a baby after her marriage, she would have to be away from her job for a while, which in turn would be a threat to the position she holds at her workplace. The work culture is very competitive in Korea and you can easily find replacements for any position. For a man to replace a woman is even easier.

Marriage is not a union between two individuals but two families. This is even more appropriate for East Asian cultures, where, from marriage to childbearing, everything is linked. For a society bearing such thinking, it is only natural for a girl's parents to find an ideal groom for their daughter. An ideal son-in-law would be someone who can provide their daughter emotional and financial support. 

Many women in Korea would not marry the man of their choice if their parents do not approve of him. Even if she decides to marry the guy her parents have chosen for her, she would still have to rely on her parents' financial help as marriages in Korea are very expensive. According to Statista, in 2018 an average Korean wedding cost around 230 million Korean Won which includes Yedam, the gifts given to the groom's family. In a country where marriage comes with such a cost, it is only natural that a 21st-century South Korean woman finds having enough money in her bank account to own an apartment in Gangnam to be more attractive than getting married, even if it means that she has to work a few extra hours.

Interestingly, with the growing popularity of Korean dramas which portray getting married to an older woman to be desirable, it is seen that the female population, when it does tie the knot, is also inclining towards getting married to men who are younger by five years and sometimes even ten years. This has led to increased growth in the number of remarriages, even though Korea's culture does not favour remarriage. In fact, given the increasing popularity of marriages with older women, changing trends can be seen with the subtle possibility of a matriarchy.

But all of this comes with a cost. Fertility in Korea has become not only an issue that concerns the people of the country but is also often talked about by various international news outlets. South Korea is known to have one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. The World Bank reports that women in South Korea have 1.2 children per capita (global average being 2.5 children). The problem, however, multiplies with the rapidly ageing population. The declining popularity of marriage among women has led to lessening birth rates in the country which indicates that there aren't enough babies being born to replace the older generations. This entails a high possibility of population decline. In fact, the UN reports that, by 2100, South Korea's population would reach as low as 29 million which is the same as the country's population in 1966.

South Korea has been one of the flag bearers when it comes to exemplifying ideal romantic relationships to the consumers of television dramas but the reality is a bit different. The government's effort to popularise dating and marriage to defend the country from a possible population decline includes introducing schemes and policies like providing one-off payment for each baby born to cover parental costs to turning off the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs' lights at 7 pm, once a month, with the hope that their employees would not be too tired to date and even have babies!

Dristi Das is a student at the University of Delhi, who is pursuing her Bachelor's degree in Philosophy. Her field of interest is East Asian culture and she likes reading and researching on the same.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.