[Column] Berating young people to marry won’t fix Korea’s demographic woes

Posted on : 2024-05-24 16:50 KST Modified on : 2024-05-24 16:50 KST
For Korea to become a society where young people want to and do get married, we must first frankly face the reality that forgoing marriage has become the rational choice for their generation

By Lee Chul-hee, professor of economics at Seoul National University; director of the population cluster at the SNU Institute for Future Strategy 

“Marriage Is a Crazy Thing” is a novel by Lee Man-kyo that came out in 2000. It came to wider attention when it was adapted into a film of the same name by director Yoo Ha in 2002. 

With a cast headed by two of the most popular stars of the time, Uhm Jung-hwa and Kam Woo-sung, the film version attracted 1.2 million viewers. Even people who didn’t see the movie were most likely struck by its rather provocative title. 

Twenty-four years later, it is a title that no longer seems strange. 

Between 2000 and today, the percentage of South Korean women aged 25 to 39 who are married has dropped from 80% to 40%. Among women in their late 20s, the percentage marrying in a given year has fallen from around 20% in 2000 to about 5% now. 

Even if marriage isn’t necessarily viewed as a “crazy thing” to do, it seems apparent that it has become a choice — one that fewer and fewer people are making. In a society like South Korea’s where marriage is seen as a prerequisite for having children, the decline in marriages is a major factor driving the decline in new births. 

Why are young people not marrying? 

As someone from a different generation, I cannot fully grasp the feelings or situations of young people today. But I would suggest that it is not — contrary to what some are claiming — a phenomenon that can be fully explained in terms of changes in cultural norms and attitudes toward marriage. Only when we consider the long-term structural factors that are ruling out marriage as a choice for young people will we be able to identify the causes behind the rapid decline and seek out potential solutions. 

First off, young people’s predictions for their own future have grown bleaker. 

The US economist Richard Easterlin has said that the decision on whether to start a family is dictated less by current income level than by the difference between one’s expectations for life and their potential to actually achieve them. Moreover, those expectations for life are shaped during a person’s growth process and influenced by the economic conditions experienced by their parents. 

This theory does provide an explanation for the decision to put off or forgo marriage among young people who are living in a low-growth era and whose parents spent their youth in an era of high growth. 

The per capita gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate for South Korea’s working-age population averaged 7.5% annually during the 1980s, when the current young generation’s parents were adolescents. That rate fell to 2.3% during the 2010s, when they themselves reached young adulthood. 

As an era of rapid growth ends and things enter a state of stagnation and shrinkage, the intensifying competition simply to hold on to past status puts opportunity out of reach even for young people who are highly talented and hardworking. 

Members of the young generation may also have felt anxiety over their own futures after witnessing what happened to their parents’ generation in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, which led to mass unemployment and to eventual employment insecurity and post-retirement poverty. Under these circumstances, it would become difficult to make the decision to marry, which would require being able to predict the distant future. 

Second, the economic incentives to marry have decreased compared with the past. 

Some of the economic advantages of marrying include greater efficiency based on the division of labor within the home, the distribution of risks, and the benefits of shared consumption. 

But as the socioeconomic roles of women and men have grown more similar, the division of labor effects of marriage have decreased. Meanwhile, expansions in the social insurance and social service systems have taken some of the place of the distribution of risk within families. 

Changes in technology and consumption patterns have also lowered the benefits of shared consumption. For instance, the spread of streaming services means that people no longer need someone to go to the movies with. Eating and drinking alone is no longer regarded as unthinkable or awkward. 

Meanwhile, the costs associated with marriage have only gone up. With home prices and rents on the rise, it’s become harder to buy a house after tying the knot, and even weddings cost more now than they once did. And for women, the opportunity cost of marriage is much higher than it was up to this point. For the young women of today — well prepared for a life of working, and strongly motivated to achieve professional success — the disadvantages that married women still face both at home and in the workplace are turning them off from marriage.  

For Korea to become a society where young people want to and do get married, we must first frankly face the reality that forgoing marriage has become the rational choice for their generation. Our first step must be to recognize that this reality will not be easy to change, and that it will require efforts for fundamental change over a long period of time.  

The various youth-oriented education, campaigns, and changes to how marriage is portrayed in the media that some have suggested as means for promoting marriage will not suffice to change the reality that marriage has indeed become “a crazy thing.” But more importantly, we need to shift our perspective on what’s really wrong here: Setting aside the low birth problem, a society in which young people are struggling to have love lives and marry is itself troubled and unhappy, and that is reason enough to change the status quo. For the young people of today, calls for them to marry in order to help relieve Korea’s demographic problems don’t even merit a response.  

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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