Young Koreans aren’t swearing off marriage, they’re deferring it

Posted on : 2023-05-09 16:38 KST Modified on : 2023-05-09 16:38 KST
A recently published study shows that less than a principled opposition to the idea of marriage, young Koreans profess a lack of preparation for doing married life right as a reason for not being wed
An engaged couple takes a photo outside of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. (Yonhap)
An engaged couple takes a photo outside of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. (Yonhap)

When unmarried South Koreans in their 20s to 40s were asked their reasons for delaying or eschewing marriage, many of them cited a particular number: 100 million won, or around US$76,000.

“I’ve been saving up 100 million won,” said a 29-year-old man from South Gyeongsang Province. “That’s when I’ve been thinking I should get more proactive about marriage. If it doesn’t work out, then I guess I’ll just get a later start with my life.” His full-time work in aviation machinery assembly earns him 2 million won per month.

“Since I’ve been working at my company, saving up money has been difficult,” said a 40-year-old woman working in finance in Seoul. “I think women also feel like we have to have something like 100 million won in place before we can get married.” Her full-time career brings in 5.5 million won per month.

“You need to have a stable position somewhere before you can start making any sort of a plan,” remarked a 33-year-old man who does security work in Busan. “In practice, that’s difficult.” His part-time contractual job earns him a monthly income of 2.3 million won.

The figure seems to have taken on a symbolic significance. It is seen as the minimum economic means that a person has to have before getting married. Those who have not reached it are better off postponing marriage, the interviewees suggested.

But as the security worker quoted above pointed out, saving up 100 million won by the time a person is at what society considers to be the “right age” for marriage is a tall order even for people with decent full-time jobs — let alone for those with irregular employment. In Seoul or its surroundings, it is difficult for them to even find a deposit-based housing rental arrangement.

A report on family formation and social inequality was published recently by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA). A team led by researcher Choi Sun-young met with 40 unmarried women and men throughout South Korea between June and August 2022 to conduct in-depth interviews. The aim was to take a closer look at the younger generation’s attitudes toward marriage.

Aside from three participants who were opposed to marriage in principle, the findings showed that most of the participants, regardless of gender, were not resistant to the idea of marriage. If anything, they were hopeful — but they also said they have no intention of marrying in the near future. The researchers described this phenomenon as “marriage deferral.”

Indeed, the researcher team’s analysis of Korea Labor and Income Panel Study data from 1998 to 2020 showed that while 37.3% of men born in 1969 were unmarried by the time they reached the age of 30, that percentage was all the way up to 73.5% for men born in 1989.

Along similar lines, 13.8% of women born in 1969 were unmarried by 30, compared with 53.3% of women born in 1989. In the space of 20 years, the proportion of people unmarried by the age of 30 had doubled for men and nearly quadrupled for women.

What accounts for this phenomenon of deferring marriage? An analysis of the unmarried women and men’s responses showed that they tended to believe they could only marry once they had established the foundations of a “family economy,” with a stable job, income and assets.

In the researchers’ analysis, the participants expressed the attitude that they would need to save money for another few years before “actively considering” marriage, since they were “not at the level of marriage funds necessary to purchase or rent a home with their current income and assets.”

It’s a situation borne out by the real-life examples of many unmarried men and women who participated in the study.

One 30-year-old man residing in Seoul has been working freelance as a television writer. A graduate of a vocational college outside the Seoul area, he traveled to the capital in search of better job opportunities. He expressed the view that his focus now should be on boosting his socioeconomic status and his income, which is currently 2 million won per month.

A 32-year-old Busan resident was in a similar situation. A graduate of a four-year university, he spent many years working as a teacher at an after-school academy. He now does clerical duties through a contracted position at a provincial university. He had a girlfriend before, but she was uncomfortable choosing him as a marriage partner due to his unstable career situation, he explained.

A 39-year-old woman from Seoul said, “I was close to getting married in my late 20s, but we split up after deciding that it wasn’t the right time to get married.” The woman, who began her interview by saying she would probably stop working and have a baby if she got married, dubbed marriage and childbirth as the “conclusion of one’s youth” as well as a “limitation.”

She continued that one should put off marriage as much as possible “in order to enjoy leisure time freely and have the opportunity to find yourself.” However, it should be noted that only upper-class single men and women can come by this “opportunity to find yourself.” For poor, low-wage men and women who are single, it isn’t just marriage that has to be put off — it’s also a leisurely, enjoyable life.

As such, marriage deferral can be considered a wholly intentional and strategic act, but researchers still determined there were subtle differences across gender lines.

While men put off marriage in order to buy time to build up qualifications for marriage or increase their time as laborers before marriage, women did so in order to postpone changes entailing marriage, such as gaps in their resumes or childcare, as much as possible. In other words, women put off marriage as a response to various societal disadvantages and gender inequality within the family.

“The act of refraining from getting married immediately, or marriage deferral, is a strategic tool men and women use to increase scarce resources or minimize the disadvantages of marriage,” Choi wrote in the report. “It’s important that a tight social safety system for individuals and families be built and ensure the right to a balance between work and life be realized.”

By Lee Chang-gon, senior staff writer

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