Why Do Young Koreans Live With Their Parents?

Young Korean Man (Source: Andrew Butts; CC BY 2.0)

(Update, 2 March 2016: Thanks for the link in today’s Guardian, but this Korea Times article of mine is a little out of date. I recommend this 2013 Busan Haps article instead.)

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.

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.

korean-grown-children-living-with-parentsPerhaps 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 (source right: Korea Times).

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:


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.


20 thoughts on “Why Do Young Koreans Live With Their Parents?

  1. I would like to debate the fact that Korea is one of the only non-Western developed societies. Of course I would like to know your definition of “developed”, you probably mean “economically” right?

    Even so, if I have a quick look at the list of countries by GDP per capita, as published by the IMF (even if these figures can be interpreted in many different ways, I’m only using these datas to prove my point), the non-Western countries that have a higher GDP per capita than Korea are: Trinidas and Tobago, Oman, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Israel, Hong Kong, Brunei, Japan, Singapore, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and finally Qatar.

    Saying Korea is one of the only non-Western “developed” societies, even in the economic sense of term, seems a bit over-exagerrated no?

    As for Seoul being the second biggest city in the world, it might be good to point out that this is based on the rank of metropolitan areas by population, as opposite to the rank of cities proper by population, where Seoul ranks #8.


    1. Sorry for taking so long to reply to all of your comments Sam: it’s just that you left so many of them!

      But I’m afraid that I’ll have to disappoint you yet again with my reply to this one, as I don’t really feel like debating those points myself: although I’ll concede all of them, they’re irrelevant to the article really.

      By way of compensation though, I’ve scanned pages 18-19 of the book from which I first learned about convergence theory, which you see for yourself here. Written in 2003, it actually says that Japan is the “only nation outside the Western cultural tradition that has achieved a high level of industrialization”!^^


      1. Sorry I’m not sure I understand what you are saying, why aren’t my points irrelevant to the article?

        I read your link, and honestly I find it quite funny. In which way would Japan be the only nation outside Western countries to have achieved a high level of indusrialization? How exactly does the author defines “achieving a high level of industrialization”? That would means Korea is not a (highly) industrialized country anyway, which goes against what you affirm in your essay, no?

        When the term “industrialized nations” is not enough to affirm that Western countries are superior to others, people now use “highly industrialized countries” as a new term, fantastic. I would also be interested, even if it’s beside the point, to know how many “highly industrialized countries” do not owe their present status to past international crimes: colonization, wars or slavery. (or reserves of oil, even if that’s not a crime in itself). Probably can count that on my fingers I’m pretty sure.


        1. Sorry, I chose my words unwisely. Of course your points weren’t “irrelevant” to the article, and you’re quite right (and more than welcome to!) to correct factual errors in anything I write. But still, Seoul’s size and the existence of other, non-Western industrialized societies doesn’t detract from the basic point of the article that young Koreans’ living habits have far more to do with economics than with culture. (that’s what I meant to say yesterday.

          In hindsight, Sugimoto’s argument about Japan being the only nation outside Western countries to have achieved a high level of industrialization was indeed quite funny: I should have given it more scrutiny when I read it about 5 years ago. In his defense though, his book as a whole is quite a revelation, breaking many stereotypes non-Japanese people have of the place (my own too). Speaking of which, seeing as it’s in the tab next to this one, here is a blog devoted to precisely that if you’re interested.

          But you seem to have misinterpreted that part of my last comment. I don’t mean to sound patronizing, but “^^” generally means something is funny in internet-speak, and actually I provided the quote of his to point out his mistake!


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