Feature: The Trend in Korea of Living Alone

I know about high rents, low wages, no wages, exploitative landlords, travel costs, dangerous areas, debts, student or otherwise, and the housing ladder… But come on. For Britons, if you’ve always been healthy but you’re still living with your folks in your late-20s, never mind mid-30s, something has gone wrong. And no amount of defensive yammering about high rents is going to change that.

~Barbara Ellen, The Guardian      

Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.

~Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl       

Alas, I’m not a girl, either good or bad. But I did leave home at the tender age of 18. And the liberation, empowerment, and—yes—sexual freedom that came with that move played no small part in giving me the courage and spirit of adventure to get on a plane to Korea six years later.

Once I’d arrived, though, and started befriending and dating Koreans, I kept running into the same conundrum: they would be no more or less intelligent, sophisticated, or worldly-wise as Westerners… but invariably they would still be living with their parents. Often, the women even had curfews too.

Frankly, this placed definite limits on how far our relationships could develop. Sometimes, this was for practical reasons, like one girlfriend having to catch a 9:30 bus home every night. (Anyone else resorted to quickly making out behind their hagwon?) More often, it was because it was ultimately impossible for me to respect them as adults.

So, it would be no coincidence that my wife lived in a one-room with her sister when we started dating. Or that—before we all hit our 30s and/or got married, that is—all my Korean friends either a) had rare progressive parents that didn’t mind that their children openly cohabiting; b) kept their living arrangements a closely guarded secret from their more traditional ones; or c) at the very least, bitterly complained about being stuck at home due to their financial circumstances.

Indeed, it’s those financial circumstances that meant perhaps I shouldn’t have rushed to judge, as the combination of high security deposits required under Korean rental systems, the low wages at part-time jobs, and the dearth of suitable single accommodation make living away from home very difficult for most. Moreover, these realities remain truer than ever in recent years, with many 20-somethings remaining in higher education because of the poor job market.

In addition, it’s been a long time since I came to Korea in 2000, and now many adult children are actually given a great deal of freedom by their parents, who often remain in willful ignorance about what they do at night. Add that many mothers still tend to do all the domestic chores (daughters, however, are usually expected to help more around the home), and that they become well accustomed to living with their parents as an adult, then even if they do graduate with good jobs it’s debatable if moving out for a few years before marriage is really worth the hassle and—especially for women—the social stigma.

But perhaps this focus on 20-somethings and lifestyle choice is misguided. Starting in the 1960s with miners and nurses sent to Germany and construction workers to the Middle East, then workers moving to Seoul for factory work in the 1970s, then husbands being transferred to other cities while their wives and children remained in their good school districts in Seoul; in fact Koreans are very used to their families being split up for the sake of work. So much so that, by 2008, one in eight had at least one immediate family member living away from the rest.

What’s more, according to the Samsung Economic Research Institute, Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of growth for single households, which now comprise one household in four. This is actually higher than in countries like the US and Australia, and is expected to rise to nearly one in three households by 2020.

One positive of this trend is the new consumer market being made available. Partially, this is simply because ‘singles’ tend to have less children and therefore more to spend. However, it’s also true that they require smaller fridges and washing machines, smaller servings of food (e.g., bottle sizes), and smaller furniture specially designed for small homes. Companies are responding. Also, a host of ‘hire-a-hubby’ type-companies have spawned to provide basic repair work and/or to buy groceries, in particular, for (supposedly) impractical female singles.

Another positive is that singles tend to concentrate in areas where suitable accommodation and jobs are available, often leading to thriving and creative communities. In Seoul, for instance, fully half of all the singles in the entire city live in the narrow band around subway line 2, which is dense with cafes, restaurants and retail spaces as a result.

However, as the Economist noted in August last year, such communities also need strong social security nets that free people to pursue their goals. Not only is this sorely lacking in Korea, but it’s important not to romanticize the singles trend here, as the reality is that it is sharply polarized along sex and income. In short, whereas most singles in their 30s to 40s are middle-class professional men, there are an equal number of women in their 60s to 80s living in abject poverty.

Often it’s only churches that are left to provide the latter with basic social welfare. Add the sense of community that draws singles of all ages, and income levels, as well as the networking opportunities available at them, then suddenly Koreans’ long history of being uprooted from their homes and families provides an un(der)acknowledged reason for high church attendance in Korea.

Likewise, however much Koreans like to think of themselves as family-orientated, Korea’s singles trend is already having a profound impact on economics and politics. Hopefully Korean policymakers and the public will not just dwell on the ensuing problems, but also come to see the positives and and the economic opportunities as well.

Main photo by Ahsan Khokhar (source)

James Turnbull is a writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality and pop culture. He can be found at his blog thegrandnarrative.com

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