In Saturday’s Korea Times. As always, here’s the original version:
…Everyone knows the strong Korean custom of adult children living with their parents until marriage, yet a report released earlier this year revealed that one-person households now account for a fifth of all households in Seoul
This is lower than national figures for most other developed countries, the Seoul Development Institute report notes, and the number for Korea as a whole is likely to be lower still. But the rise puts Seoul on par with Australia, and the rate is predicted to grow to a quarter of all households by 2030.
How to interpret this? Does it signal that the Korean custom of staying in the family home until marriage is under threat?
That is unlikely. The figure includes single professionals, jobless youth, those separated from their spouses, divorcees, and senior citizens, with growth in every category. It does not imply a sudden glut of young Koreans leaving home.
While Korea has experienced many periods of great labor mobility in its recent history, particularly of young, single, working-class women moving to work in factories in cities in the 1960s and 1970s, there is definitely no tradition of young middle-class Korean university students leaving home to share private accommodation with fellow students, and there are still strong taboos against openly cohabiting with partners.
At the same time, young Westerners are adjusting their expectations for living arrangements, as the combination of rising university fees, stingier government allowances, and prospect of paying back student loans leads them to defer leaving home until graduating and/or getting their first job. This delay is often both parents’ and children’s least preferred option, but it is a trend likely to continue given the bleak job market for graduates worldwide.
This points to important economic reasons for the differences, and indeed there are big financial hurdles to overcome to live independently in Korea. For instance, at the moment Korean students cannot get student loans without their parents acting as guarantors (although the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is working to change this). Nor do the vast majority of universities accept credit cards for payment of fees. In practice though, the combination of extremely high “key money” deposits required by landlords and the low wages afforded by part-time jobs favored by students are keeping even the most rebellious of youths at home until graduating and getting their first job. And then, he or she faces a dearth of rentals of appropriate size.
But familiarity breeds acceptance, and while cultural factors are still important, in practice they are often overstated, as for all the purported differences in how Koreans and Westerners view and value family life, many would behave in a similar fashion in similar circumstances.
For instance, with a child’s school being such an important consideration for entrance into a preferred university, and seniority-based promotion systems locking an employee into a specific company, then if a man is transferred to a different city it is very logical for his wife and children to remain in the family home rather than the children leaving the good school and/or him starting at a much lower wage and position in another company.
Also, as legions of unhappy mothers driving home every Sunday night can attest, Koreans generally don’t like to give their children to relatives to look after during the week, but with childcare facilities being so inadequate, working parents usually have little choice.
(Source above right: Korea Times. Source left: unknown)
Certainly there are some arrangements that Westerners would almost unanimously reject, such as sending one’s family overseas for years for the sake of the children’s education, but Koreans’ living arrangements do not mean that they are as cold, calculating, or dogmatic as they may at first appear. For instance, while they are not openly discussed, ubiquitous love hotels point to unmarried Koreans having romantic relationships much like Westerners, and as the spate of recent celebrity pregnancies can attest, engaged couples are usually given a great deal of freedom.
Moreover, Korean’s living arrangements may well become more liberal in the future.
A long-running debate within sociology rages over whether capitalism forces very different societies to “converge” and become more similar to each other over time or not, and as one of the only non-Western developed societies, Korea is an important element in that debate.
And as reported by the Economist in March, a decade ago Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick observed that countries with high rates of home ownership have higher rates of unemployment: with few rental options, he argued, young people living with their parents find it harder to move out and get work, or are stuck in local jobs for which they are ill-suited, and earning less than they could.
Perhaps given the dire state of today’s economy, such imperatives will force such a change in Korea? (End)
With apologies to long-term readers, for naturally my articles for the KT will tend to be about subjects that I’ve already covered and know well.
As they’re for a newspaper rather than a blog though, then I’m being forced to make the subjects much more newsworthy, contemporary, and concise than in their original rambling manifestations here, which (presumably) can’t help but have positive effects on my writing style in the blog as a whole. At the very least then, my planned next blog post will be much shorter than it would have been had I posted it just a few months ago(!), but never fear, for I am still a geek, and so it will still be an in-depth one on an original subject (update: sorry, it’ll be next week, but I’m not sure what day now).
For anyone new to the blog and wanting to learn more about any of the issues raised in the article though, then please try the following links:
- The Seoul Development Institute’s Report (in Korean), which I analyze in more detail here.
- The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology’s recent moves to allow students to get student loans without their parents as guarantors.
- Why most Korean universities won’t allow students to pay fees with credit cards.
- The effect of the current economic recession on Korean students’ student loan plans and employment prospects after graduation (here and here)
- The sociological debate over whether Japanese (and Korean) society is being forced to become more Western as a consequence of its deeper capitalist development, in two long posts here and here.
- The Economist article on the negative correlation between home ownership and labor mobility.
Update: The SDI’s report also mentioned that 51% of those people living alone in Seoul lived in the districts along subway line No. 2, a very small area relative to the vast conurbation that is the second most populous city in the world! It’s definitely no coincidence then, that those districts are dense with cafes, restaurants and retail shops, in total offering 21% of all the part-time jobs in Seoul.
Most of those pay 4000 won an hour, that article reports; the minimum wage is 3500.
Update 2: Here’s a graphic representation of the “single belt” around subway line No. 2, from p.15 of the SDI report.