- Marriage and fertility rates have decreased dramatically in South Korea.
- The exorbitant cost of childrearing may be a reason why Koreans avoid parenthood and marriage.
- Labor market discrimination against young mothers may be another reason why Koreans avoid parenthood and marriage.
- The heavy dual burden of paid work and household responsibilities may be another barrier to marriage and parenthood.
Young adults in South Korea are increasingly avoiding marriage. Non-marital fertility is rare in South Korea; thus, declining marriage rates have also resulted in a dramatic fertility decline. By 2018, South Korea had the lowest fertility in the world. Their total fertility rate in 2023 was 0.78. This means that Korean couples are averaging less than one child. These demographic changes have resulted in a dramatic rise in young adults who remain single and childless.
The dramatic rise in childless singles and resulting population aging problems have been a source of grave concern for many South Koreans. Why have we observed the dramatic rise of young adults in South Korea who opt into prolonged periods of childless singlehood?
A new article published in the Journal of Family Review and Theory in April 2023 reviews the recent empirical studies to ascertain why South Korean young adults are increasingly opting for childless singlehood. It points to four reasons.1
First, traditional views and postmodern attitudes about married life coexist and generate tensions.
South Korea experienced social changes over a compressed amount of time. Therefore, Western attitudes and institutional practices coexist with many traditional practices inspired by Confucianism.2
Confucianism dictates that individuals prioritize family needs over individual desires.3 Young adults, particularly women, are expected to sacrifice their career advancement and other forms of self-actualization so that they can meet their obligations toward family life, including caring for their aging parents and engaging in all-consuming parenthood.
Postmodern attitudes characterizing the Second Demographic Transition place a growing emphasis on self-actualization and egalitarianism. This has generated an aversion towards social institutions that serve as barriers to self-actualization.4
Young adults in South Korea are increasingly avoiding marriage to eschew an institution that demands self-sacrifice for the familial good and serves as a barrier to self-actualization.
Second, the high cost of rearing children is another reason why young adults are opting for childless singlehood.
After the Asian Financial Crisis in the late-1990s, the Korean economy ceased its rapid growth.5 Instead, it witnessed a rise in non-standard and contract work, contributing to increases in economic uncertainty, particularly among new market entrants.5 In response, Korea became a hypercompetitive society. Entry into elite universities is particularly competitive due to the strong ties between obtaining a degree from these universities and individuals' chances for upward mobility.6
Confucianism dictates that children's academic excellence is the family's honor.7 Parents have the responsibility of ensuring their children's academic success. They are expected to invest enormous amounts of resources to ensure their children's educational success.8
Korean parents are partaking in an educational arms race to ensure that their children have a competitive edge over other children. Most children have access to private tutoring and expensive after-school programs. Large shares of Korean families are spending 20 percent of their household income on these programs and education centers.9 Such investments are pervasive across all social strata despite the growing economic polarization in Korean families.
Young adults who are unwilling or unable to partake in this arms race will avoid marriages and parenthood.8
Third, labor market discrimination toward married women, particularly mothers, is another key reason. Korean employers assume that mothers will prioritize their parenting and domestic responsibilities. Under this assumption, they may exclude mothers from lucrative opportunities, promotions, and senior leadership positions. Women with ambitious career plans may forego parenthood to avoid becoming part of the mommy track. Given the tight coupling between marriage and parenthood, this may also mean avoiding marriages.10
Fourth, the heavy demands of housework placed on women may be another reason.
Due to men's declining economic fate, South Korea transitioned from single- to dual-earner households. Married couples increasingly depend on wives' economic contributions. Although women's labor force participation has increased, women continue to do most of the housework. For example, a recent study found that wives who had their second child spent 420 minutes every day on housework; whereas, their husbands spent 63 minutes every day on housework.11
Women will likely eschew marriage and parenthood if they know that getting married means having to simultaneously assume the heavy burden of housework and paid labor at the expense of their physical and mental health.12
In South Korea, the institution of marriage has remained largely unchanged despite profound changes in the economy and other institutions. The inflexibility of the marriage institution has rendered marriage largely incompatible with the economic realities of today's young adults, resulting in the rise in the childless single. If Korea wants to increase its fertility and marriage rates, its marriage institution must change so that it can become more compatible with the expectations and economic realities of young adults.
1. Choi, K. H. and Y. Qian. Forthcoming. "The rise of the childless single in South Korea" Journal of Family Review and Theory.
2.Chang, K. S. (2010). South Korea under compressed modernity: Familial political economy in transition. Routledge
3. Suzuki, T. (2008). Korea’s strong familism and lowest-low fertility. International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 17(1), 30–41.
4. Lesthaeghe, R. (2010). The unfolding story of the second demographic transition. Population and Development Review, 36(2), 211–251.
5. Cooke, F. L., & Jiang, Y. (2017). The growth of non-standard employment in Japan and South Korea: The role of institutional
actors and impact on workers and the labour market. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 55(2)
6.Garrison, Y. L., Liu, W. M., Yeung, C. W., Park, S., Sahker, E., & Conrad, M. (2017). The meaning of hakbeol within the context of educational meritocracy and prestige among South Korean college students. Journal of Asia Pacific Counseling, 7(2), 105–121.
7. Park, I. H., & Cho, L. J. (1995). Confucianism and the Korean Family. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 26(1), 117–134.
8.Anderson, T., & Kohler, H. P. (2013). Education fever and the East Asian fertility puzzle: A case study of low fertility in South Korea. Asian Population Studies, 9(2), 196–215.
9. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2021). Education at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators.
10. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2021). Education at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators.
11. Kim, E. H., & Cheung, A. K. L. (2019). The gendered division of household labor over parenthood transitions: A longitudinal study in South Korea. Population Research and Policy Review, 38(4), 459–482.
12. Chee, Y. K. (2000). Elder care in Korea: The future is now. Ageing International, 26(1–2), 25–37.