Take a look back at the Baby Boomers—the generation born between 1946 and 1964—and Generation X—those born between 1965 and 1980. Back then, many people were strongly encouraged and sometimes even forced to get married. However, as the society’s standards have changed, marriage has become an option, rather than an obligation. In recent years, the traditional family system has declined and the emergence of postmodernism is starting to influence the family sector.
Tick-tock goes the marriage clock. Many people in their late twenties and thirties hear questions and concerns from parents, relatives, and colleagues such as, “When are you going to get married?” or “Isn’t it about time?” These questions may become more and more insistent as more people are bombarded with doubt and uncertainty regarding their future. For them, Chuseok and meeting family members who raise this issue cause an immense amount of stress.
Currently, the total fertility rate in Korea is 1.25 children—lower than that in Japan, which has been well known for its low birth rate. Even though this may not seem to be a problem at first, if the total fertility rate declines over a long period of time, the size of the labor force will start to shrink and the country is likely to have an aged population. Many people, especially conservative critics, believe that getting married and having kids is an important tradition and that living a single life leads to a lower birth rate. However, this is not the case. For although rare, there are many people nowadays that have kids without getting married.
There are numerous reasons why people do not marry. Some want to get married but cannot due to economic reasons. According to Huffington Post Korea, 61.1 percent of respondents to a survey said that marriage is not mandatory, with 75 percent revealing that they chose not to marry due to the bleak and unpredictable economy. Others of course purposely choose not to marry as the number of voluntary bachelors and bachelorettes is starting to increase. However, the social pressure to get married and live a normal life still abounds in the society. Indeed, postmodernism and the increase in the number of postmodern families has significantly changed millennials’ perception of marriage and life in general. In the 20th century, the Greatest Generation—1901-1927—and the Silent Generation—1928-1945—were exposed to the traditional family system where grandparents, parents, and children all lived together in rural areas. After the Industrial Revolution and World War II, many people started working in factories and parents could no longer support their family, which lead to the modern family system.
Eventually, a more diverse variety of family types such as widows, single parents, and de facto marriages, in which a couple lives together without getting married, started to emerge within the society, leading to the postmodern family system. According to Professor Chung Soon Hwa (Department of Home Economics Education), “These days people still have children without getting married.” She continued, “The shape and form of the concept family is starting to change and people do not have to necessarily marry.”
In fact, there are people who now live in different types of family structure, such as jolhon. As opposed to simple divorce, jolhon is when partners decide to simply pursue their own desires but not legally separate with each other. Because members of the previous generation were pressured into marriage by their parents, they did not have a choice but to marry. However, nowadays, people are more determined to follow their standards and stand by their beliefs in marriage.
However, even though people say that they can live by themselves, they cannot stay alone forever. At some point in their lives, staying isolated from the society can have negative effects as everyone needs some level of communication and interaction. It has long been claimed that, “Humans are social creatures,” which may explain the increase in the number of community families, which are people that share a family like bond with each other. Some communities are composed of women only, and in some cases, it may consist of several families, single men, and women. Even though this is not legally recognized by the Korean government, it can be seen as a form of various or alternative families’ system which is becoming more prevalent within the society.
Another important change that has influenced the marriage rate is the increase in the power and independence of women. Historically, women have been oppressed, with marriage in particular a rather burdensome event. Even though the country is starting to improve their situation by providing such things as one year maternity leave for working moms and parents, disadvantages still exist for those people who decide to use such offers as they may fall behind at work or miss the opportunity to ask for a pay raise. Chung says, “Instead of extending the child care policy duration, the government and administration should set a firm foundation and improve its current rules.”
Interestingly, there are psychological reasons why people choose to be single. According to Chung, there are two main reasons why people choose not to marry. First of all, children from divorced parents do not have a good impression of marriage. Divorce is always stressful for children as most children do not want their parents to separate, which may lead to psychological and behavioral struggles. Eventually, this may increase the chance of difficulties of building a relationship with other people. In addition, many Korean parents oppose their son’s or daughter’s marriage and suggest another person, and those children whose marriages are denied by their parents start to look for partners of a higher standard, which delays marriage further.
Ultimately, marriage itself is not a bad thing. In fact, marriage can be great, but only for some people. According to critics, even though there might be some negative consequences to the decline in the marriage rate, in the end, as societal norms diversify and change, it is less about adhering to a conventional style of life and more about living the life one truly want.