Welfare and benefits stuck in 20th century, singles say
According to Statistics Korea on Monday, the number of marriages last year was 239,159, the lowest since statistics were first compiled in 1970. The number of marriages per 1,000 people has dropped to 4.7.
Single-person households are now at 29.3 percent of the total, making it the largest household group in the country. The proportion of single-person households is expected to reach 30.3 percent this year, 33.8 percent in 2030 and 40 percent in 2047.
Support programs for this expanding group are hard to find.
This is because the government's welfare policy is focused on promoting childbirth due to the low birth rate, and there is still a social perception that marriage is the norm. Welfare benefits for married people and children have expanded greatly in recent years, widening the benefit gap between singles and families.
When a 43-year-old single woman who works for an IT company in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, was having lunch with her colleagues, she heard that the company would give 100,000 won ($83) as congratulatory money on every employee’s wedding anniversary. When she asked, "It's an anniversary between the couple, why is the company taking care of it?," colleagues responded, "You don’t know how hard marriage is," or "If you feel it’s unfair, get married."
"The company's guidelines say not to ask one’s age and marital status, but benefits are tailored to married couples with children," she said. "It’s upsetting how singles can’t even raise the question."
Under the Employment and Labor Policy, maternity, childbirth and child care leave is expanding. Examples include one-year paid child care leave, 10-day paternity leave for spouses and a system to reduce the work day one to five hours when infants need care.
Starting this year, the Ministry of Employment and Labor introduced a 10-day family care leave and plans to increase family care leave from 10 days a year to 20 days a year. The number of companies that have introduced maternity leave, shorter working hours during pregnancy and fertility treatment leave has increased significantly. Companies are also offering infant care and emergency child care programs, as well as two to four weeks of vacation for employees with children entering elementary school.
For the companies, unmarried employees are low-cost workers. Singles do not receive congratulatory money or corporate welfare for wedding anniversaries, childbirth or school admission, or benefits for their spouse's health checkups and their children's education.
A single employee who works at a top 10 company that provides health checkups for spouses, university tuition fees for children and overseas study expenses recently asked the personnel management department for such corresponding benefits for single employees. But the department said the cost would be too high, as 30 percent of employees are single.
Tax settlement time is singles tax season. There aren't many tax deductions for singles, so much so that some even say if you are single and want tax deductions, you need to at least get a high-cost surgery.
A 49-year-old managing director of a subsidiary of a top 10 conglomerate had to pay back 15 million won of tax. During the period of additional tax payments, he said his monthly salary fell lower than that of the department head or deputy head of the department. "It feels like a 'singles tax' because I pay much more tax than those in the same rank with the same salary just because I am not married," he said.
"Singles also need a place to live alone," said an unmarried office worker, “but we are very disadvantaged compared to the married at receiving jeonse [long-term rent] loans and winning the score-based selection in apartment subscription. I wish there was a separate care system that allows singles to get loans at low rates in connection with the company.”
It's tough for some singles working in corporations.
"I feel mostly offended when people assume that I should have so much time and money with no stress just because I am not married," said a 30-year-old woman who works for a clothing company. "Singles have our own concerns and interests to spend money and time on."
"I'm not saying that I'm going to take away the welfare from the married," said a man in his mid-40s who works for the holding company. “But if singles are playing an increasing role in society and businesses, society should start asking what they can do to support their lives."
"The government's child care-related welfare system should continue to the work-life balance and prevent the falling birth rate, but as it is clear that there will be more single-person households in the future, so more research on the social and welfare safety net for the single household should be conducted as well.” Song In-han, a professor of social welfare at Yonsei University, said. “The current social and corporate welfare system is designed of the 20th century, in which the four-person household is the norm, but it is now time to acknowledge diversity and go to welfare on an individual basis in the future.”
Businesses are slowly making changes. Shinhan Bank is providing 100,000 won to each single and childless employee regardless of age starting this year, which is equivalent to the amount given for wedding anniversaries to married employees. The parents of a single employee can get a medical checkup in lieu of the employee's spouse.
"Some pointed out that the company's welfare is against equality for being mainly focused on married employees,” a Shinhan Bank official said. “We’ve received positive feedback on our changes.”
For single employees, Woori Bank offers medical checkups to one of their parents every other year and invitations to various programs, including the Maum Talk Concert, special lectures on drones, cooking, baking and photography.
"As the number of unmarried and those marrying later is increasing, it has become essential to support their self-development and healthy leisure activities,” an official of Woori Bank said.
CJ Group is increasing programs for employees regardless of marital status, including the Creative Challenge, which allows employees to take up to 4 weeks of leave every five years, or the Global Voyage, which provides study abroad opportunities for all newly promoted managers every year.
BY LEE SO-A [firstname.lastname@example.org]