Demographic shifts has locals rethinking family: As nation grows old, homes become smaller

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Demographic shifts has locals rethinking family: As nation grows old, homes become smaller


“Familyhood” (2016), directed by Kim Tae-gon and starring Kim Hye-soo, challenges the Korean norm of a traditional family. [SHOWBOX]

A few years ago, a house was not considered a home without a family. Creating a home of one’s own meant forming a family, with a spouse and two children to fill the rooms of a three-bedroom apartment. But nowadays, people are challenging the conventional ideas of home and family to form new kinds of households with fewer people. The country’s marriage rate drops each year and fewer people are choosing to have children, while at the same time, the rising life expectancy means that society is becoming older. Korea is facing problems it has never dealt with before, yet the government and public institutions still struggle to think outside the conventional family box.

According to Statistics Korea, in the 20 years between 1997 and 2016, the number of couples who got married per year dropped by 28 percent, from 389,000 to 282,000, and during the same period, the fertility rate dropped from 1.52 to 1.17. Many experts are worried that at this rate, Korea may lose its population within a century, but the government fails to flow with the fundamental changes and continues to cling to traditional family structures.

Rethinking marriage

There was a time when getting married was a natural part of the maturing process for a grown-up in Korea. In 1995, 77 percent of adult men and women were married, and most of them had at least one or more children. Marriage wasn’t an option or a goal; it was standard procedure, part of the things that all normal adults do, like getting a job and buying a house. These days, however, the notion of marriage has become optional, along with the idea of having children.

The government has spent over 100 trillion won ($88.5 billion) over the past 10 years to raise the birthrate, but the results have been contrary to the government’s initial goals. There are many reasons that this is the case, but the biggest one would be that the government has failed to break the social equation which directly equates birth to marriage.

The government is anxiously encouraging people to have children — but only those who are married. Giving birth to a child out of wedlock is considered the last resort for a single woman, and an unplanned pregnancy usually pushes a couple to get married quickly. To most Koreans, childbearing is synonymous with marriage, and one without the other is considered absurd.

Not surprisingly, only 1.9 percent of births in Korea occur outside of marriage, according to a report by Bank of Korea released in July 2017 on the OECD Family Database, while an average of 41.2 percent of births occur outside of marriage among OECD countries.

A stark contrast can be seen when Korea is compared to France, the country with the highest birthrate in Europe. France was faced with a similar situation in 1994 when its birthrate had plummeted to 1.66. But 20 years later in 2014, that number hit 2.08, and has stayed above 2 every year since. Among newborns in 2014, 56.7 percent were born outside of marriage, meaning that the child was that of a single woman or a couple who was not married.

“The birthrate is falling and it’s realistically difficult for the government to deal with such a trend,” said Lee Soo-hyung, professor of Economics at Sogang University, in an interview with the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“Rather than going too far with governmental policies to raise the birthrate, it’s important to recognize the socioeconomic challenges that may happen along with the falling birthrate, and prepare for such issues ahead of time.”

In the case of France, what happened during the 20 years that the birthrate gradually rose was that the government eliminated the idea of institutional wedlock from its books. In 1999, the Pacte civil de solidarite (PACS) was implemented for the first time, a system which awards the same privileges to unmarried couples as those bound by law. In 2006, French lawmakers removed an article from the Family Laws that drew a line between children born from married parents and those from unwed parents.

“The Korean government has been focused on the goal of overcoming the low birthrate since 2005,” said Professor Lee. “But it’s time to break from the fantasy that we can turn back the low birthrate, and deal with other social and economic problems by shifting our way of thinking.”

In September 2013, film director Kim Jho Kwang-soo held a public wedding to his partner, Kim Seung-hwan, becoming the first celebrity homosexual couple. That same year, they filed papers to be legally recognized as a married couple to the Seodaemun District Office in western Seoul. Their papers were rejected, because “‘wife’ and ‘husband’ cannot be of the same gender,” according to the legal system. The couple filed for appeal at the court, but their case was rejected by the Seoul Western District Court in December 2016.

Kim Jho and his partner Kim may not be a married couple in the eyes of the government, but their efforts carry significant meaning. “My marriage cracked a hole in the institution of marriage founded by the heterosexuals,” said Kim Jho. “I made people think about what can’t happen inside a conventional idea of marriage. I hope people come to think about what changes it may bring in the future.”


Single people live together in a share-house in Gwanak District, southern Seoul. Mainly occupied by single people in their 20s and 30s, there are numerous share-houses popping up in the city. [WOOJU]

Living Alone, Together

In a demographics report by Statistics Korea released in April, it was revealed that for the first time in Korea, single-person households took up the biggest proportion in all forms of housing in the country. According to the report, 27.2 percent, or 5.18 million people, were living on their own as of early 2017, a number which is speculated to rise to 36.3 percent by 2045. As the percentage of two-person households accounted for 26.1 percent, over half the whole population, or 53.3 percent to be exact, is living in a house of one or two people. The government expects that number to exceed 70 percent by 2045.

“The increasing number of single households is one result of the falling low birth rate,” explained Kwon Young-in, a research professor at Yonsei University, studying Family Studies. “The younger population avoids getting married, and wishes to stay independent of their family, which results in more single households.”

Industries have been quick to follow on with the trend, coming up with products and services to suit the needs of those who live by themselves. Retailers make small packages of ready-made food and fresh vegetables, restaurants now offer tables for one, and IT start-ups have developed apps where lonely people can meet up and share their hobbies with each other. Slowly, changes are being made across the country that not only make single life more comfortable, but less lonely as well.

The law and the conventional ideas may not be moving as quickly as people are, but there are movements across society that contribute to the shifting paradigm. On the one side, people are either rejecting or changing the traditional meaning of marriage, while on the other side, people are coming to form new kinds of communities that are not based on blood-related family. Among many who choose to stay single but still crave the warmth of a community, new styles of housing are being formed to suit their needs, such as share-houses and co-housing.

Mainly occupied by single people in their 20s and 30s, there are numerous share-houses popping up in the city. The idea is that, while the residents get their private rooms, they share the living room, kitchen and the monthly taxes. Co-housing is a little different in that each residence is an actual house, but the residents share common facilities such as garages, laundry rooms or storage facilities. Co-housing started in the 1970s in Scandinavian countries and is now settling in many countries world-wide. One such house can be found in Mapo District, western Seoul. The building is occupied by nine households, who each have separate houses from the third to the sixth floor of the building, but share the first and second floor with everyone else.

In 2006, a movie directed by Kim Tae-yong titled “Family Ties,” considered the first movie in Korea to depict the idea of family that’s not based on blood relations, but on the actual ties that bond people together, was released and created a national discussion on the meaning of family. While the movie dealt with various issues without much emotion, such as marriage, divorce, adultery and love, it was able to pose questions to the audience about what makes a family an actual family, if it’s not established upon the conventional ties of a blood relation.

A more recent movie “Familyhood” (2016), directed by Kim Tae-gon, poses the similar question, but with a more radical approach. Challenging the Korean social norm which still points fingers at single mothers, the movie revolves around the relationship of superstar Go Joo-yeon (actress Kim Hye-soo) who fakes her pregnancy and gets famous for her “courageous act,” and a pregnant middle school student Kim Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) who has to hide from everyone else until the baby’s birth.

The movie may be a comedy, but the ending in which the protagonists come to live together is nothing to laugh about. Although the auteur drew on the matter of single mothers in a light manner, the ending in which the characters come to live together against the people’s judging eyes, and not bound by law, hints to a society where families don’t just refer to a household of blood-related members, but a community of people from different walks of life, bound by love and not the law.


Aging Quickly

Every year on Oct. 2, Statistics Korea publishes its report on the elderly to coincide with the national Day of Older Persons. This year’s papers reported that, as of 2016, the population of those aged over 65 was 3.87 million, making up 13.8 percent of the whole population. When the scale hits 14 percent, Korea is no more an aging society, but will become an aged society as defined by the United Nations. The percentage of the elderly is expected to rise to 24 percent by the year 2030, and 41 by 2060.

Another report by Statistics Korea on Oct. 8 revealed that 33.5 percent of the elderly are living on their own, but the law still depends on family support as the primary solution to the elders’ well-being. The Welfare of Older Persons Act defines that, “a ‘person who is under duty to support’ means a spouse (including persons in a marriage or de facto relationship), lineal descendants, and their spouses (including persons in a marriage or de facto relationship).” Article 3 of the same act declares, “The State and people shall make efforts to develop and maintain a sound family system based on the traditional custom of expressing respect and love for older persons and parents.”

Korea is aging faster and faster with fewer babies born each year, but nothing is properly helping with the fundamental changes: Life expectancy is rising, but not the retirement age; and more seniors are living alone, but the government policies still assume the family as the primary caretaker. Since only 41.6 percent of the elderly earn their own living, the rest are left to depend on their children or relatives, their retirement money or the national pension.

“The current social structure cannot be maintained, should it stay within the conventional method of laying the primary responsibility on the families to take care of the elderly, the sick or the handicapped,” said Professor Lee of Sogang University.

“The government takes care of a segment of the roles, such as through the national pension system or by supporting the families with caretakers or home assistants - but they’re still all auxiliary roles that cannot function without the help of the families. For example, the law still requires a family member to take care of those living on basic living securities, and it is a legal duty of the family to take care of a handicapped or sick member of the family.”

Lee continued that in order to properly deal with the situation, there needs to come about a shift which takes a different view on those populations, so that even if the population decreases, individuals can live to their fullest and the society gets its supply of quality human capital.

“We need to take a different point of view towards those who have a lower participation rate in the economy, like the handicapped,” said Lee. “If we are to see them without their handicaps and as potential human capital that could work on global levels, the government needs to provide them with vehicles, high-tech support gadgets and IT gadgets to help them stand on their own two feet. On the other hand, companies cannot go on with forcing the people with an overly tiring amount of work or overlooking industrial accidents that threaten the health and lives of individuals.”

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