New economics of tying the knot
When singledom becomes greater problem than unemployment
By Kim Da-ye
Last year on New Year’s Day, Kim Sang-ki, a 29-year-old working at a games company, was asked in a large family gathering, like most other single in their late 20s or early 30s, when he would marry. He said he would like to marry within a year and is working hard for that goal. He repeated the same answer this New Year’s Day.
Kim has been dating his 24-year-old girlfriend for four years, and knows she’s the one. He says they often discuss getting married.
But he won’t pop the question until his savings of 30 million won swell to at least 40 million won, which is likely to take another year.
In Korea, men are expected to arrange housing — those with wealthy parents or exceptionally well-paying jobs may consider buying one but most rely on rent, specifically “jeonse.” Jeonse requires the tenant to deposit a large amount of money with the landlord. Instead of collecting rent monthly, the landlord uses the deposit to turn a profit and returns the same amount when the contract ends.
This system, however, has taken a toll on Kim whose parents just make ends meet running a small restaurant on the outskirts of Seoul, while the average jeonse deposit for an apartment jumped more than 15 percent over a year.
Determined not to rely on his parents for the wedding, Kim continues saving.
“I don’t like alcohol. I do not have any expensive hobbies apart from gaming. And I’ve got just two pairs of pants including these,” he said, patting his knees.
In fact, his girlfriend’s parents have never made any specific demands, but Kim doesn’t want to ask them for approval empty handed. He knows that’s the norm for society.
Kim, with a degree from a two-year polytechnic college, hasn’t had an easy career path. After a brief stint as a butcher, he worked a contract job at his current employer — contract positions are in general shunned in Korea for insecurity. After two years, he won a permanent position thanks to his strong skills and work ethic.
When asked which has been more difficult for him — getting employed or hitched — he answers without hesitation, “For me, getting married has been a lot harder. I don’t know how long it will take me to save enough and how long I will be able to hold on to this job. I have no control over the situation.”
Welcome to modern society where singledom has become a greater problem than unemployment not because people have failed to meet the right one but because they do not have enough economic power to get married.
New economics of marriage
Economic factors have always played an important role in many societies when men and women find their life-time partners.
Korea is no exception, but the pursuit of economic interests in marriage has become somewhat exceptional.
According to marriage consultancy Duo, over 34 percent of 1,446 women surveyed prioritized financial capability and job in choosing a future husband, followed by 30 percent putting importance on personality and 9 percent on looks.
In the case of men, 31 percent of 1,482 respondents put personality before other values, followed by 22.27 percent placing priority on physical appearance. Less than 10 percent of them picked women’s jobs as the most important value while 7 percent focused on their partners’ financial capability.
What’s interesting about such preferences for the partner’s economic qualification is that they don’t come from conservative parents or rigid social structure but independent, young individuals.
Korea is to a large extent a free society where individuals’ feelings and opinions are respected. People date freely anyone they like, but turn extremely conservative when it comes to marriage.
Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University, said in his popular book “Partner, Love” that the young generation’s “formula” for choosing their life-time partners is much more complicated than that of their parents’ generation.
The formula involves assessments of various “specs,” an abbreviation of specifications and the expression Koreans use to talk about a person’s different qualities.
“It’s no longer unusual to separate dating from marriage,” Hwang said. “A couple who like each other and end up marrying after spending a long period time together is now an old story.”
How did Korean become such heartless realists in choosing partners? At the end of the day, Koreans want to get hitched. The latest survey by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2009 showed that 75.7 percent of over 3,300 single males desired to marry, compared to 73.1 percent of nearly 3,600 women wishing the same. The figures are down from 82.5 and 73.8 percent respectively from the same survey done in 2005.
Acknowledging that tying the knot has become more difficult than passing the bar exam or finding a job, Hwang points out that matchmaking companies that rate spouse seekers by specs have fueled materialism.
“Matchmaking companies have subdivided criteria for choosing a partner and match couples according to those criteria. They constantly promote the belief that a couple with matching criteria would have a happier married life,” Hwang said.
For evaluating a client and matching him or her to someone with a similar or better rating, these firms charge a huge amount in fees. The cheapest annual package provided by Duo, the largest marriage consultancy by the number of members, is just under 1 million won exclusive of VAT. Designed for those of marriageable age with no divorce in their history, the services include a personal meeting with a “manager” and five meetings a year with matching members. For divorcees and “platinum” members, the fees are higher.
Not surprisingly, the condition of utmost importance is “money,” Hwang claims.
“It’s not you, an individual, who gets evaluated in finding the right partner. It should be something general that applies to everyone. Nowadays, that standard has become money,” Hwang said.
Make it or break it
Economic factors make or break marriages throughout various stages.
At the earliest stage, they dictate men and women’s deciding whom to meet and even whether to get permanently committed or stay single.
One female marketing manager at a foreign company recently said over lunch that she hasn’t married because she doesn’t feel the need for it.
She is financially independent and many of her friends have stayed single. She may marry if she meets the one, but does not want to force herself into matrimony.
In her late 30s, she dates younger men, so do many of her friends.
On the next stage, where those hoping to marry have found their partners, economic factors play a major role in their decision to take the plunge or not.
Kim, the IT worker, belongs to this corner. He is postponing his proposal until he saves enough money but feels uncomfortable whenever he sees some of his colleagues who passed their marrying age in the process of preparing the modern-day dowry.
“I see many who worked hard to qualify as eligible bachelors. By the time they have bought their own home, they have gotten huge bellies or lost too much hair,” Kim says.
He admits that if his girlfriend was as worldly as an average Korean woman, he would never be able to marry. He cites a case of how his friend’s girlfriend changed over time and now clearly set out a minimum amount of money he would need to prepare to tie the knot with her.
Kim’s story is a reminder of today’s buzzword “Sampo” generation which indicates a 30-something who has given up dating, marrying and giving birth because of the lack of financial means.
Even after engagement, issues related to money keep harassing even the most determined souls who should be by this time be indulging in rosy expectations over a happily married life.
In modern Korea, the culture of dowry has become more rigid than ever. Arranging a home is a groom’s job while a bride is expected to fill up the home with furniture and appliances as well as preparing gifts for in-laws and their relatives such as hanbok, the traditional Korean costume.
The Korea Wedding Culture Research Center that belongs to matchmaking firm Sunwoo found in a survey of more than 350 newly-wedded couples in 2009 that the average cost of getting married was 175.42 million won, up from 128.53 million won in 2005 and 82.78 million won in 2000.
Housing costs the newlyweds the most — it accounts for 72.5 percent of the total at an average of 127.14 million won, compared to 10.53 million won spent on the wedding ceremony and 4.54 million won on the honeymoon.
Interestingly, 87 percent of the spending on housing came from husbands and their families, meaning the bride’s side contributed only 13 percent on average. Furthermore, the actual couples were responsible for 50.1 percent of the housing costs, their parents paid 43.1 percent and loans accounted for 6.8 percent, the survey showed.
Such a trend puts much financial and emotional burden on parents who try to delay their retirement although they are increasingly forced to quit early.
This reporter’s landlady expressed her mounting concerns last Tuesday that she has two sons who have approached marriageable ages and she doesn’t know how she will manage to come up with hundreds of millions of won. Her eldest son and his future bride are both doctors, highly-prized professions in terms of social status and the income they bring in.
It’s not unusual to see conflicts between families during wedding prepartion caused by money. A survey of 356 newlywed couples showed that 36.8 percent of the respondents experienced trouble while preparing for their wedding and the biggest cause of most conflicts was housing.
One manager-level bachelor working at a large conglomerate told this reporter that he and his fiancee broke up while searching for an apartment.
Both wanted to live in Seoul, and his fiancee demanded a recently built apartment in proper condition. The jeonse deposit for a modern apartment with two bedrooms — the size most sought after by newlyweds — ranges between 250 and 400 million won, which is a huge sum of money for people in their early and mid 30s.
As the fiancee insisted her terms, they ended up having a big fight, which upset the mother of the groom-to-be. She couldn’t understand why her son had to be treated that way, he said.
The near obsession with fine lifestyle is a contrast to the attitude of the baby boomer generation, many of whom used to say that they can start from a small rented room.
When asked why the younger generation isn’t willing make such a humble start, Lee, a single woman in her mid-30s working at a media firm, said, “Back then, amid fast economic growth, people had hoped that they would be able to climb up the social ladder and afford a bigger place in the future. Nowadays, people feel that if they start in a small room, they will be stuck there for the rest of their lives.”
The high cost of getting married naturally leads to some couples to be heavily indebted after the honeymoon ends. In addition to the Sampo generation, another phrase linked to both the economy and marriage has emerged — “honeymoon poor.”
Is better economy solution?
If money can make or break relationships, can financial help promote more marriages?
The Korean government is anxiously observing as the number of men and women wanting to marry drop. Stable marriages have been perceived as the driving force that stabilizes society and boosts the economy.
The country is already concerned with low birthrates as married women find it difficult to maintain both a family and career.
Kim said he wants to get married, but he doesn’t want any children. He says having children in his financial circumstances would be a sin.
“Poverty gets inherited,” Kim says.
The Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) said in a report in 2010 that persistent low birthrates could shrink the population to 24.68 million by 2100 — half the current level — and a third of a million by 2500, threatening the survival of the Korean race. Furthermore, the lack of a labor force will cause the economic contraction beginning in 2029.
The SERI suggested several economic measures to increase marriages and births. They include paying out larger pensions and giving inheritance tax exemptions to families with multiple children, exempting taxes on education expenses, providing housing for newlyweds and encouraging the public sector to hire more working mothers.
While the government presses businesses to improve the working environment for women, some companies have actively started matchmaking for their employees as part of society-wide initiatives to boost marriage.
LG Display is among the most active employers that promote “colleague couples” under the “making a happy workplace” initiative. A total of 349 couples at LG Display got married by September 2010, according to the firm. Former CEO Kwon Young-soo even let couples use his vehicle as a wedding car. Between June and October 2010, 55 couples took advantage of this.
Kim Bong-soo, CEO of the Korea Exchange, also said in a year-end meeting with journalists that his two goals for 2012 were expanding corporate social responsibility programs and matchmaking employees.
The increasing population of career women combined with long working hours has resulted in dating at workplaces. A survey by Job Korea, a recruiting website, found last November that 44.2 percent of respondents have dated a colleague and 13.9 percent of those got married.
Hwang, the author of Partner, Love, however, said that economic measures cannot improve low birthrates and that people won’t have a happy married life when they have chosen their spouses on specs, not on what they truly want.
He claimed that married people shun giving birth because they no longer enjoy raising children together and lack trust in each other.
The psychologist said that the specs considered in tying the knot can change and the illusion over the marriage could fade away over the time. He asserted that people should understand and trust themselves to find the right partner.
“The idea that pursuing realistic specs will lead to perfect happiness is dominant. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a belief and an expectation,” Hwang said.