Happy alone: the young South Koreans embracing single life

Date Added: February 05, 2022 06:30:13 AM
Author: Sutra Web Directory
Category: Regional: South Korea
Min Kyeong-seok is not shy about eating in restaurants alone, or staying in luxury hotels by himself, and shares his experiences online in his blog “One happy person”.
“I want to show people that I am living a happy life despite being single,” says Min, 37.
“South Koreans often view single people as pitiful, lonely, or lacking something be it economically, psychologically or even physically.
“But I don’t need to be with others to enjoy a delicious meal. If anything, the service is better.”
Opting to engage in activities alone is a growing trend in South Korea. It even has its own word, “honjok”, a combination of the Korean words for “by myself” and “tribe”. People who follow a honjok lifestyle do so willingly and confidently, not caring about the judgement of others. Min is among an increasing number of young people in the country embracing single life. Some have chosen to stay unattached, while others are delaying marriage and children. Some women are taking single living further and ruling out matrimony altogether, a choice known as “bihon”.
Single-living boom
In 2020, the proportion of single-person households in Korea rose to an all-time high of 31.7%. People in their 20s and 30s constituted the largest age groups of single-person households. Marriage and birth rates in the country are at record lows, as young people blame the high cost of living and home ownership for their reluctance to tie the knot. In South Korea, owning a house is traditionally seen as a prerequisite for marriage and in the past four years, the average price of an apartment in the capital Seoul has doubled.
Raising children is also becoming more expensive and the burden of private education - seen by many South Koreans as essential - has put many off plans to start a family.
Joongseek Lee, a professor at Seoul National University who researches single-person households, says while South Korea remains a collective and patriarchal society there is a rising tendency “to stay alone or to become independent when one has the chance.”
While attitudes are changing, traditional expectations remain. For women, this includes marriage by 30, quitting their jobs to become mothers and full-time housewives. For men, it is providing a house and being the breadwinner.
Min says the country’s traditional structures prevent him from being himself, and instead he wants to have a “flexible” life.
“In Korean society, you feel as if you are constantly being assigned missions, from going to a good school and university, to getting a job, getting married, and having kids. When you don’t fulfil your set of predetermined missions, you will be judged and asked why not.”
The rise of honjok and bihon
For Seoul-based university student Lee Ye-eun, rampant gender inequality has influenced her way of life. South Korea has the worst gender pay gap among OECD countries. The country ranked last on The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index for a ninth consecutive year, measuring where women have the best and worst chances of equal treatment at work.
Lee has declared her bihon status, vowing never to marry.
“I’m not going to date, I’m not going to marry, and I’m certainly not going to have a baby - even if you give me money,” says the 25-year-old.
“I didn’t pledge not to get married because there are no good men, but because society dictates that women be in a more disadvantageous position when they enter a relationship.”
New businesses and offerings have emerged to cater for the swelling single and solo-living markets in South Korea.
The Seoul city government has created a task-force developing services for single-person households, such as low-cost security cameras, workshops on mental health and opportunities for singles to make kimchi – a staple in any household.
Hotels are also trying to attract solo customers with “me-time” single occupancy staycation packages. Eating alone, also known as “honbap” and part of the honjok lifestyle, is predicted to grow as a trend in 2022, including at expensive restaurants. Convenience stores are providing more customised products and services for people living alone. And the pet economy is expected to surge in the coming years, according to Korea Rural Economic Research Institute, as more people opt for pets over parenthood.
Expanding the idea of family
Lee Ye-eun says embracing single life over the binds of marriage and child-rearing creates room for other pastimes.
Time with her close friends has become more precious, and she hopes to create a community of like-minded individuals. Through an app for bihon women, she joined a sports group that she meets with several times a week for activities such as climbing and football.
Kang Ye-seul, 27, is a university employee who has also opted never to get married. She says staying single gives her more freedom and allows her to pursue hobbies and hang out with her non-married friends.
“I feel like I’m in a completely different world,” Kang says positively of her life decision.
“In the past, I longed for happiness, wondered what it was, by what criteria to evaluate it, and curious about other people’s standards,” she says.
She remains cautiously optimistic about the place of single people in society.
“A sense of freedom and happiness followed after I learned that I could live a bihon life. Now, no matter what I do, it’s a choice only for me, so I don’t feel burdened or afraid of any responsibility that comes with it. I don’t think I’ll ever be as unhappy as before.”
Government attitudes and social awareness toward single-person households are still lagging compared to the direction in which society is moving, Kang says. She would like to see a society that is more accommodating to nontraditional household structures such as living together without being married or related to each other.
Last year, the government announced it would look into expanding the scope of the term “family” which could eventually include cohabitation and single parenthood, the latter of which continues to be stigmatised.
“There are still limitations to the system for single-person households,” Kang told the Guardian.
“But I also see things positively given that such households are only going to increase in number.”