South Korea: On ‘Loner Culture’ and ‘Birth Strike’

It’s hard to imagine a densely populated country like South Korea – its 526 people per square kilometer outpaces neighbor Japan’s by nearly 200 -- becoming defined by a generation that prioritizes alone time over collective gatherings. After all, in many Asian societies, individual interests take a back seat to those of groups and families. How is it even possible to claim significant personal space or time?

While theories abound, one thing is certain: As of 2016, says the Korean Statistical Information Service, there were more than 5 million single-person households in South Korea, which translates into 28 percent of all households nationally.

Not surprisingly, a high number of single-person households also suggests that South Korea’s birth rate hasn’t been setting any record highs. The CIA’s World Fact Book lists South Korea’s birth rate at 1.26 per woman, which places the country’s estimated fertility rate at 219th place out of 224 countries worldwide. That’s significantly down from 6.1 births per woman as of 1960.

As for the causes, answers can be found in, of all places, a recent photography exhibit depicting solitary South Korean young adults. A CNN report says that the photos are meant to underscore the loneliness of South Korea's youth – in particular, a subculture known as "honjok," a newly minted term mixing the words "hon" (alone) and "jok" (tribe).

"It's a sense of giving up," photographer Nina Ahn tells the cable network. "We live in a generation where simply working hard for a bright future doesn't guarantee happiness, so why not invest in 'me' time?”

Author Michael Breen, who recently profiled South Korean society in a new book, adds that the lower birth rate is a by-product of the rise in both economic development and democracy. The more people become comfortable with these upward trends, he argues, the more they want their benefits, including personal independence. Women especially are distancing themselves from traditional expectations of rearing children.

"With the [prospect of] added pressure from the in-laws, a lot of women opt out from the idea of marriage," Breen says to CNN.

‘Opting out’ might be putting it a bit mildly.

While in South Korea to cover the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, the news division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) noted that many women there had declared a ‘Birth Strike’, refusing to conceive, bear, and raise children because of factors that included not enough child care assistance from men as well as a pervasive wage gap. And unless and until economic and social conditions improved, women would effectively walk a proverbial anti-conception picket line.

In fact, one South Korean woman told the CBC that when the prohibitively high costs of university and housing are factored into the mix of everyday life concerns, having children amounts to something of a luxury, about as unrealistic as paying cash for an expensive sports car while simultaneously becoming buried under an avalanche of post-graduate debt.

"Many women are worried about all the expense and this makes us not want to have babies," she said.

Another woman interviewed by the CBC added, "People normally think that women should be the one who would take care of kids mainly, and these days many women work as well. So that means we have to work inside and outside [the home], basically."

Combined with the rise in South Korea’s ‘Loner Culture,’ it would appear that significant social upheaval is about to overtake the entire country.

Not so fast, say traditionalists.

One man, who operates a wedding hall in which he typically marries about 700 couples every year, told the CBC that he thinks younger people in his country are merely exhibiting self-centered behavior, which goes against a long-standing tradition of performing one’s civic duty.

"The main thing is young women need to change their attitude and think about having to sacrifice something for this country," he said.

Which, it would seem, they already do by working for less money than their male peers and bearing the pressure to shoulder more of the burden of domestic chores and responsibilities.

In the end, the issue may indeed hinge on economics.

A 2018 New York Times Magazine report explains that South Korea “is now aging faster than any other advanced economy on Earth.” By 2045, the country’s median age is predicted to rise above 60; by contrast, the median age in the U.S. in 2045 is projected to be around 42.

This dramatic shift is expected to result in a severe labor shortage at a time when more and more elderly residents are drawing on the country’s pension system.

Yet another case of a society with shifting priorities that will necessarily need to shift again for the sake of the greater good. And the cycle of life will continue, spurred on undoubtedly by those wise enough to make proactive choices to preserve their assets.