KOREAN SOCIETY is shifting away from its idealized image of the household ascomposed of a nuclear family. Just ten years ago, Korean society was highly group-oriented. The term *single* was not positively embraced, and watching movies or eating at restaurants alone involved a great degree of self-consciousness. Living alone in South Korea was rare, as the statistics show. However, in 2016, living alone either out of necessity or by choice is no longersurprising. In fact, it is becoming a trend, with a rising number of people living alone. There are even celebrities who show off their daily lifestyles as solo dwellers. I Live Alone, a reality entertainment show, documents what it means for these celebrities to live alone. The rise in solitary households has important implications for the direction of Korean culture.
Moving toward individualism
Every five years, Statistics Korea conducts the Population and Housing Census of all residents in Korea through an Internet survey system. According to the results, single-person households constituted 12.9% of all households in 1995. The most common type of household consisted of four members, accounting for 31.7% of all households. However, during the past 20 years since 1995, there has been a dramatic change in the average composition of a Korean household. By 2005, the number of two-member households exceeded that of four-member households.
Statistics Korea defines “one-person household” as “a household of a single resident, who independently maintains the livelihood.” In 2015, 27.7% of households were single-person – that is, double the percentage in 1995. It is now the most common type of household, followed by two-member households. In fact, the number of single-person households is growing fast in many regions around the world. Nevertheless, given that Korea has been profoundly influenced by the Confucian belief that “family is indispensable for human survival and flourishing,” the rise in the number of people living alone in Korea is remarkable. In a way, it signifies that Korea is shifting from a group-oriented to an individual-oriented culture.
The reasons for living alone vary from person to person. Some prefer living alone in pursuit of more freedom, and others simply because of personal necessity, usually to save commuting time or to prepare for civil-service exams. “Since my parents reside in the United States, I have grown used to living alone and the freedom that comes with it. I have no plans of changing the way I live, and it would be even more uncomfortable to live with someone else, even if it were my family,” said Aileen Nam, a 27-year-old Korean currently working as an English teacher. She then added, “At first, I felt lonely. But the advantage of living alone is that my parents do not interfere too much with my personal life.”
Meanwhile, Kim Ye-bin (Jr., Dept. of Econ., Yonsei Univ.) expressed, “I used to live alone at Sillim-dong for a year in order to prepare for the public service aptitude test. Though it was burdensome to cook and do the laundry all by myself, it was still worth it because it saved a lot of commuting time.”
The meaning of “living alone” is changing; people now tend to associate it with “freedom,” “convenience” and “new lifestyle,” rather than with “aloneness,” which often implies “loneliness.”
Examining single households: who are they?
In order to fully understand the factors related to the increasing number of single-person households, it is crucial to look more closely at these households. Park Hyun-joon (Prof., Dept. of Sociology, Univ. of Pennsylvania) and Choi Jae-sung (Prof., Dept. of Econ., Sungkyunkwan Univ.) examined the characteristics of living alone according to gender and age in their 2015 article, “Long-term trends in living alone among Korean adults.” In order to study the trend of living alone among these different age and gender groups, Park and Choi collected data from Statistics Korea for ten census years and categorized men and women separately into six different age groups. The results were that the proportion of both women and men aged over 18 years living alone has significantly grown since 1960, but a higher percentage of women than men are living alone, by an average of 2%. Also, looking at different age groups, the percentage of women who lived alone was highest among those aged over 65, especially widowed elders. As for men, the percentage of men living alone was most prevalent among unmarried men ages 25 to 34.
Lee Young-ho and Han Jung-min, both Researchers of Industry & Trade Analysis Division, categorized households in terms of their marriage status in their 2013 study, “The Rise of Single-Person Households and Changes in Consumption Patterns.” They found out that in 2010, 1,840,000 households (44.5%) were single, 1,210,000 (29.2%) were widowed, and 560,000 (13.4%) were divorced. Meanwhile, only 530,000 (12.9%) were married. According to Lee and Han, the increase of single-person households is related to the high number of young people who are postponing marriage because of expanding economic anxiety and high unemployment rate. Also, the increase in young single-person households is related to the growing independence of young people from their parents.
Further, while the majority of people living alone are young people in their 20s and 30s, they usually earn lower income compared to other age groups. Lee Eun-mi (Researcher, Samsung Economic Research Institute) noted in her article titled “Characteristics and Implications of Single-person Households” that the average monthly disposable income of a person living alone was only 65.2% of that of a person living with two or more members in the household. What is more significant is that the income disparity between single-person households and two-person-plus households is increasing every year. Lee explains that this increase is due to the lack of growth in the already low income levels of single-person households in their 20s and 30s and the elderly aged above 70. Together, they make up two-thirds of the total single-person household population. Meanwhile, the average real income level of single-person households has been steady over the past ten years. To summarize, the majority of people living alone are young people who are not married and widowed seniors, and these segments of the population generally earn less money than their counterparts.
Other social factors that contribute to the increasing number of single-person households are the growing desires of individualism and self-realization, which are gradually shaping Korean society. In 2014, the Presidential Committee for National Cohesion and the Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission conducted a survey on 942 people over the factors contributing to the increasing number of single-person households. Results showed that those over age 40 chose weakening importance on family norms (31.4%) and the growth of individualism (28.8%) as the main reasons for the increasing number of singletons, while those under 39 chose the decline in marriage (30.1%) as well as job instability and adverse economic circumstances (26.5%) as the major factors.
Customizing policies for single households
The growth of single-person households is bringing remarkable changes to the Korean economy and Korean businesses, from consumption patterns to marketing strategies. The rise in the number of single-person households is expected to increase overall consumption. Products that can usually be shared by two or more people such as durable goods and, indeed, apartmentsare purchased individually. Also, items normally bought in bulk at discount prices by more than two people are now bought by individuals in smaller quantities and at higher prices. This fuels a rise inoverall consumption. According to theKorea Institute of Economics & Trade (KIET), the total consumption spending of single-person households has increased from ₩16 trillion in 2006 (3.3% of total expenditure of Korean households) to ₩86 trillion in 2015 (13.6%). By 2030, it is expected to amount to ₩194 trillion (19.6%).
Major items that single-person households purchase also differ from those of households with two or more people. According to a 2012 survey by LG Economic Research Institute, single-person households spend most on items or services such as home maintenance, fresh food, flowers and pets. Meanwhile, items or services with declining demand from single-person households include education, childbirth related services, and high-calorie foods.
The rise of single-person households also affects marketing strategies for major industries. Businesses now concentrate on the “4S” aspects of single-person households: small, smart, service, and selfishness. People living alone prefer “small” and “smart” products and foods, as well as new, convenient “services” such as speedy deliveries. They are also characterized by “selfishness,” meaning that they engage in self-oriented consumption. Examples of marketing strategies aimed at matching the needs of singletons include selling more “mini” products such as mini ovens, mini washing machines, and mini computers or TVs. Supermarkets and retail markets also try to sell smaller food packages for those who live alone, so that they can store food inside their smaller refrigerators. Examples include small packaged meat and vegetables and quarter-sized watermelons. Convenience stores also sell one-meal packages and lunch boxes for singles who do not have enough time to cook. More and more industries must now come up with practical goods that can fulfill the needs of single-person households.
With the rapid increase of single-person households, businesses are not the only ones that must change strategies. The government should also be ready to face the fast-growing trend and accordingly customize policies for single dwellers. One of the major problems that it must face is the shortage of suitable housing problems. According to KB Financial Group’s research on the housing market, the supply of new houses in Seoul has increased from 44,000 in 2015 to 55,000 this year. However, with an increase in the number of single dwellers, the government must now concentrate on increasing the supply of smaller homes for those who live alone. In thecase of Sweden, where 47.1% of total households are solitary, according to Euromonitor in 2011, new constructionismostly aimed at individuals. Robert Emanuelsson, who works in the Financial Stability Department of the Riksbank, stated in a2015 report, titled “Supply of housing in Sweden,” that new homes for salein Sweden have increasingly been aimed at single-person.
Also, considering that most people in single households are low-income young adults,widows and women, there shouldbe new types of welfare policies aimed at providing for these groups separately according to their specificneeds. For instance, there could be more home-care and hospital care services for elders living alone without caregivers. There could also be more shared houses in which elders living alone, in separate suites, could gather together in commonspaces. With the growth of single households, the government must always be aware of theneeds of those who live alone upon framing its household policies.
* * *
There is no doubt that Korean society is facing a huge transition with changing household patterns and growing individualism. A new trend is emerging, with customized goods and services targeting singletons. Consumption patterns and business marketing strategies are being adjusted to meet the needs of single households. In response, there is an urgent need for the government to revise its policies in order to address the growing demand for smaller-sized products by single dwellers, as well as the need to support those living alone under vulnerable conditions.