People in their twenties and thirties made up the largest age groups in single-person households.
Min Kyeong-seok is not afraid to eat in restaurants or stay in luxury hotels by himself, and he writes about his experiences on 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.”
Choosing to participate in activities on one’s own is becoming more popular in South Korea. It even has its own term, “honjok,” which combines the Korean words for “by myself” and “tribe.” People who live the honjok lifestyle do so willingly and confidently, unconcerned about the opinions of others. Min is one of a growing number of young people in the country who are embracing single life. Some have chosen to remain unattached, while others have postponed marriage and having children. Some women are going so far as to reject marriage altogether, a decision known as “bihon.”
Single-person households are increasing
Korea’s proportion of single-person households reached an all-time high of 31.7 percent in 2020. People in their twenties and thirties made up the largest age groups in single-person households. Marriage and birth rates in the country have reached all-time lows, with young people blaming the high cost of living and home ownership for their reluctance to marry. In South Korea, owning a home is traditionally considered a requirement for marriage, and the average price of an apartment in the capital Seoul has more than doubled in the last four years.
Raising children is also becoming more expensive, and the cost of private education, which many South Koreans consider to be essential, has put many people off starting a family.
While South Korea remains a collective and patriarchal society, Joongseek Lee, a professor at Seoul National University who studies single-person households, says there is a growing trend “to stay alone or to become independent when one has the chance.”
Traditional expectations remain unchanged, even as attitudes change. For women, this means marrying by the age of 30, quitting their jobs to become mothers, and staying at home full-time. It is providing a home and being the breadwinner for men.
Min claims that the country’s traditional structures prevent him from being himself, and that he prefers a “flexible” lifestyle.
“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.”
Honjok and Bihon’s ascension
Gender inequality has influenced the way of life of Seoul-based university student Lee Ye-eun. Among OECD countries, South Korea has the widest gender pay disparity. For the ninth year in a row, the country was ranked last on The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index, which measures where women have the best and worst chances of equal treatment at work.
Lee has declared her bihon status and stated that she will never 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.”
To meet the growing demand for single and solo living in South Korea, new businesses and offerings have emerged.
The Seoul city government has established a task force to develop services for single-person households, including low-cost security cameras, mental health workshops, and opportunities for singles to make kimchi, a staple in any household.
Hotels are also offering “me-time” single occupancy staycation packages to entice solo travelers. In 2022, eating alone, also known as “honbap” and a part of the honjok lifestyle, is expected to become more popular, even at high-end restaurants. Convenience stores are increasingly offering products and services tailored to the needs of single people. According to the Korea Rural Economic Research Institute, the pet economy is expected to grow in the coming years as more people choose pets over parenthood.
Taking the concept of family to a new level
According to Lee Ye-eun, choosing single life over marriage and child-rearing frees up time for other activities.
Her time with her closest friends has become increasingly valuable, and she hopes to form a community of like-minded people. She joined a sports group for bihon women through an app, and she meets with them several times a week for activities like climbing and football.
Kang Ye-seul, a 27-year-old university employee, has also chosen not to marry. She claims that being single provides her with more freedom, allowing her to pursue hobbies and socialize with her single 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 maintains a cautious optimism about single people’s place 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.”
“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.”
Kang believes that government attitudes and social awareness toward single-person households are still lagging behind the direction in which society is moving. She would like to see a society that is more accepting of nontraditional household structures, such as living together without being married or related.
Last year, the government announced that it would look into broadening the definition of “family,” which could eventually include cohabitation and single parenthood, the latter of which is still stigmatized.