Low-income earners have a harder time getting married

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Low-income earners have a harder time getting married


Paek Young-min, 38, is tall, good-looking and graduated from a prestigious university. In his 20s, he was very popular with the girls. Nearing 40, Paek has given up on finding a wife.

As a substitute physical education teacher at a middle school in Seoul, Paek doesn’t make enough money to wed.

“I only make 2 million won ($1,710) a month, and I just can’t figure out a way to get married and start a family with this income,” he says. “I can find girlfriends, but none want to marry a poor temporary worker like me.”

Paek is a member of the Sampo Generation, a portmanteau meaning “to give up three things”: courtship, marriage and having kids. The trend is often described as a kind of malaise or aimlessness among young Koreans.

In fact, it’s purely a matter of dollars and cents. Young Koreans with money get married; those without, don’t.

According to a survey conducted by the JoongAng Sunday from Jan. 10 to 11 of 700 people in their 20s and 30s, it was clear that the lower your income, the harder it is to get married. Among respondents with no regular incomes, 1.3 percent were married; none of those who made less than 1 million won a month were married; and only 17 percent of the respondents who made between 1 to 3 million won were married.

That was a steep contrast to the more affluent. Some 72.9 percent of respondents with incomes between 3 to 5 million won were married, and 84.8 percent of those with incomes of over 5 million won. Excluding people who make no income such as housewives, the results show a clear correspondence between the level of income and the marriage rate.

The correlation is confirmed in an analysis published in Nov. 2016 by Kim Yoo-sun, head of the Korea Labor and Society Institute (KLSI). Among men in their 20s and 30s in the bottom 10 percent income level, 6.9 percent were married. But 82.5 of their counterparts in the top 10 percent income level were married.

Another change in custom in Korea is that people are getting married later, typically in their 30s. But that makes no difference to the correlation between income and marriage rates. No men in their 30s with incomes of less than 1 million won who took part in the survey by the JoongAng Sunday were married. The probability of a man in his 30s who makes around 2 million won a month, like the short-term teacher Paek, being married was less than 30 percent; the figures for those who made between 3 to 5 million won was 67.7 percent, and for those with monthly salaries of over 5 million won it was 89.5 percent.

According to Statistics Korea, the number of unemployed people in Korea surpassed 1 million for the first time in 2016, a trend affecting the young the hardest. In 2013, the youth unemployment rate was 8.0 percent. By the end of last year, it had soared to 9.8 percent.

A vicious cycle is setting in. Without a job, a young person refuses or fails to get married. This leads to a lower birth rate and accelerates the aging of the Korean population, which drags down consumption and investment. The economy can go into a permanent tailspin.

“It was just as economically difficult in the 1960s and 70s, but still more than 80 percent of young people got married. Now we’re in the 21st century and the situation has worsened, with poorer people having a harder time to get married,” said Kim. “It is clear that [the low marriage rate] will cause serious damage to society along with the low birth rate, and a solution is urgent.”

Park Jae-woong, a 37-year-old tutor at a cram school, stopped meeting up with his high school friends two years ago. “It’s like if you’re married, you’re successful, and if you’re not, then you’re incapable. My pride is hurt because I’m single,” says Park. “My friends who either have jobs at a well-paying company or are from rich families are all married. But not many friends with irregular jobs are. So we call one friend, who doesn’t have a good job but managed to marry, a guy who beat the odds.”

It is definitely hard for a man with a low income to get married. According to the survey conducted by the JoongAng Sunday, women in their 30s said they wanted their future spouses to earn at least 3.72 million won a month. The average monthly salary for people in their 20s and 30s in the previous year was 2.79 million won for salaried workers and 1.49 million won for contract workers.

Young women are generally less enthusiastic about getting married than they used to be. When asked in the survey whether they would like to get married, 43.7 percent of women in their 30s answered they don’t want to or they would like to but they couldn’t. Only 22.6 percent of men in their 30s had those responses.

“This isn’t because the women have higher standards for marriage, but because the marital institution is unfavorable towards them,” said Lee Na-young, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University. “It’s hard for just one person to make a living for a whole family these days. Both men and women need to work, but the men do not share the work around the house. Even when they are willing to do some housework, [men] work too many hours outside the house and have no time to take care of their homes. Eventually, the women end up with all the work, housework, childbirth and childrearing. It’s no surprise that women don’t want to get married.”

A book published in 2014 called “Marriage Markets” by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn reveals how families are affected in the lower classes of the U.S. society because they can’t afford to get married. Only the upper classes have the money.

“Economic inequality is remaking the American family along class lines, and families are not going through the same changes together,” they wrote. The authors defined marriage as a new division line for class.

“What we are watching as the shift in marriage markets rewrites family scripts and increases gender distrust is the re-creation of class - of harder edged boundaries that separate the winners and losers in the new American economy.”

Although the book is about how marriage has changed since the 1970s in the United States, this is very similar to the future on Korea’s horizon. The biggest difference is that even if fewer people get married in the United States, the birthrate doesn’t go down as much. This is because U.S. women are more willing to have a child without a husband - a taboo in Korea. The government estimated the number of babies born last year to be 406,000, 7.4 percentage points lower than 2015. The numbers are expected to fall below 400,000 this year.

A possible solution is raising the number of marriageable men with steady jobs and decent salaries. As the government recognized this need, it has drawn up plans to reform the labor market, with measures such as raising the minimum wage and making 370,000 new jobs.

BY SUNG HO-JUN, PARK MIN-JE, KANG KI-HEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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