[Viewpoint] Changing families, enduring love

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[Viewpoint] Changing families, enduring love

In Korea, May is a month centered around the family.

Just take a look at the holiday roster: Children’s Day on May 5, Parents’ Day on May 8, Adoption Day on May 11 and even Married Couples’ Day on May 21.

Come to think of it, the most amazing institutions that humans have created must certainly be the state, economic markets and families. While countless institutions have disappeared in the course of history, those three have endured over the ages and are still held very dearly. To this day they continue to influence us.

States and markets are the offspring of humans’ political and economic rationality, while families are at the center of private life. Since families are based mostly on intimacy and blood relations, they are beyond arbitrary rationality.

In the family realm, both reason and emotion coexist, giving us something that words can’t easily say. It helps us describe emotions and feelings we can’t otherwise convey. That, for instance, is why people bring family photos with them on trips, tucking them into wallets or purses or bringing small framed ones to set on hotel night stands. We rely on these photos for consolation and courage.

One of the most moving things in the world must be a faded old family photo, which evokes feelings of joy and sorrow.

But that picture is changing, and we are seeing a fundamental shift in the whole concept of a family.

According to the Korea National Statistical Office, single-person families accounted for 12.7 percent of all families in 1995. The figure jumped to 20.1 percent by 2007.

Chalk it up to the fact that a growing number of young Koreans are now waiting longer to get married and more elderly people are living on their own.

With persistent low birth rates, by 2007 in Korea, 22.5 percent of all families had two members. The fact that families with one or two members account for almost half the population shows that our society has entered a new stage, departing from the traditional norm, with families consisting of couples and children.

The composition of families is not the only thing that has been changing. The role of families has been shifting rapidly as well.

The typical life cycle in Korea goes something like this: A person is born into a family, gets an education, grows up and finds a job. Most then marry, start their own families and eventually retire. The cycle repeats itself from generation to generation.

Important pieces in this cycle, however, are being threatened.

The birth rate has been declining, imposing a serious problem on society.

Youths receive pricey private tutoring to get into universities only to face a difficult job market. Even if they are lucky enough to battle through fierce competition and find jobs, they have to worry about being fired. After their children marry and go off on their own, they become isolated and start having financial difficulties. A lonely life awaits them after retirement.

This is the reality of our society.

Therefore, we can identify four main sources of insecurity facing families in this day and age: unemployment, education, housing and life after retirement.

That is why the state must take a larger role.

The government must lay down some concrete measures to help families. This includes economic measures, such as those aimed at creating jobs, and social policies that will help people transition and cope with life after retirement.

Families change as the world changes. But one thing about families doesn’t change: love.

Kim Su-yeong’s poem “My Family” puts it eloquently:

“Although our home is rough and tough/ a wind and a wave couldn’t get any milder/ Is this love?/ Is love the only thing that can get old but still be good?”

Yes, it is. Love is perhaps the only thing that endures, weathering the tests of time.

We should express our love to our family before May ends, even though we’re a little shy to do so.

The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki

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