South Koreans Forsake the Altar

South Koreans, who already have one of the lowest birthrates in the world, at a total fertility rate of just 1.25 per female, are also marrying less, according to statistics compiled by Statistics Korea, which found that the number of newly-registered marriages fell to an all-time low of 309,000 in a country of nearly 49 million people.

What appears to be happening is a major transformation of a society that in the past was called the most Confucian in Asia. Confucian philosophy, which places significant importance on the stability of the family, appears to be waning, at least when it comes to marriage. The Statistics Korea study identifies a whole panoply of changes that is in fact taking place in Korean society that impinge on family values. The number of young who are agreeable to having children out of wedlock is rising, they don’t want their parents living with them, and they are happy to marry outside of their race.

As a result of the changing demographics, South Korea has become the fastest-aging country on the planet despite the fact that Japan has received most of the publicity over the issue. In 1960, the number of South Koreans aged 65 and older was 726,000, or just 2.9 percent of the Korean population. It is expected to rise to 10.1 million or 19.3 percent of the total by 2030.

The percentage of people who believe they should marry at all has declined steadily, according to Statistics Korea’s survey, from 68 percent in 2008 to 64.7 percent in 2010 and 62.7 percent in 2012. At the same time, those describing marriage as a choice rose steadily from 27.7 percent to 30.7 percent and 33.6 percent during the same period.

Men, according to the survey, are more interested in marriage than women, with 60.4 percent of unmarried men saying marriage is a must, compared with only 43.3 percent of unmarried women. As a result, international marriage is rising rapidly, with nearly two thirds of those surveyed (64.4 percent) saying they would be willing to marry a foreigner, an increase from 60.3 percent in 2010. The beneficiaries appear to be women from throughout Asia, particularly Chinese, both of Korean and Han Chinese descent, Filipinas, Vietnamese and Cambodians.

The demand for Cambodian brides became so heated that the Southeast Asian country temporarily banned its citizens from marrying South Korean men after two dozen women were sold into marriage by matchmakers, according to an Associated Press dispatch on Aug. 19, 2010. It was the second time the government had imposed such a ban. An estimated 50,000 Filipinos live in South Korea, either as skilled workers or marriage migrants.

One of the serious obstacles to marriage between Koreans apparently is the cost. It is estimated that a South Korean couple will spend as much as US$200,000 on a combination of cultural mandates including expensive gifts between the families and cash from the bridegroom for a home. As a result, according to the Korea National Statistical Office, the average age of first marriage is 31.6 years for men and 28.7 for women as they save for matrimony.

More people are also open about having a baby out of wedlock in Korea today, according to a new study by the Seoul-based Samsung Economic Research Institute, which is password-protected. The portion of people in favor of having a baby out of wedlock was 22.4 percent, up 1.8 percent from 2010. Additionally, 45.9 percent said they could live together with a partner without getting married at all.

In another blow to Confucianism, according to the SERI report, people are less willing to support their parents compared to the past, with an increasing number of people believing parents should earn their own living expenses (48.9 percent) and fewer insisting that family members should take care of elderly parents (33.2 percent). However, those saying the government, society and family members are all responsible for taking care of the elderly went up from 47.4 percent in 2010 to 48.7 percent in 2012.

While Confucian values continue to mean South Korea has a very low rate of elderly in nursing homes, the implications of the SERI and Statistics Korea studies mean that number can be expected to rise rapidly, especially with the fast-aging population. It is estimated that the country has some 530,000 dementia patients, a figure that has risen by 27 percent in just the past four years. It is expected that that figure will rise to 1 million patients by 2025. The condition costs South Korea the equivalent of US$8 billion a year, a figure that is expected to double every decade.

Few countries across Asia are prepared for the coming demand for elderly care, according to a study by Fung Global Institute Senior Fellow Arthur Kleinman and his Harvard University colleague Hongtu Chen. Most rely on families to care for their aging relatives. The study calls population aging "probably the most significant global trend that will occur in this century across national and regional borders."

"In addition to a large number of trained care workers who can provide direct care and support to elderly people either at home or in a nursing facility, what determines the quality of elder care in a country is the professionals who have extensive training and experience in that area," the Fung Institute study says. "There are at least three professions that are urgently lacking in developing Asian countries: geriatric care managers, geriatric nurses and physicians, and geriatric mental health professionals."

Asian families often prefer to have their elderly relatives stay at home. In South Korea, despite the new statistics, more than 90 per cent of older people with long-term care needs are exclusively cared for by informal caregivers at home. These caregivers are most frequently a spouse, daughter-in-law, daughter or son, or paid care worker.

By 2030, the traditional elder-care model that relies on one’s own children will no longer work and will have to be abandoned, the study continues. New models, possibly built on community-based social capital or collaborative care among families in the neighborhood, will have to emerge to rescue the future from the increasingly pressing burden of caring for the elderly.