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.
지난해 IT업계에 종사하는 29살 김모씨의 새해목표는 결혼에 골인하는 것이었다. 올해도 그의 계획은 변하지 않았다.
4년째 연애중인 김씨는 그의 여자친구를 결혼상대로 점찍은지 오래지만, 막상 프로포즈는 미루어오고 있다. 전세보증금이 나날이 오르는 마당에 신혼집을 마련하려면 지금 모아둔 3천만원은 택도 없기 때문이다. 4천만원을 목표로 술도 안마시고, 돈 드는 취미생활은 안하며 근검절약하고 있다.
김씨는 2년제 직업학교를 졸업하고, 군대를 다녀온 후 비정규직으로 일하다가 뛰어난 기술력과 성실함으로 작년에 정규직으로 채용되었다. 취업과 결혼 중 어느 것이 더 어렵냐고 뭍자, 망설임 없이 김씨는 결혼이라고 대답했다. 직업을 노력한 결과로 얻어졌지만, 집에서 도와줄 형편이 되지 않는 상황에서 결혼자금을 모으는 길은 멀고도 불확실해 보이기 때문이다.
김씨와 같이 짝이 없어서가 아닌, 경제력 부족으로 미혼으로 남는 이들이 증가하는 현상은 취업난을 넘어서는 사회적 문제로 발전 할 수 있다.
새로운 결혼의 경제학
경제적 요건들은 세상 어디에서나 남자와 여자가 만나서 결혼을 결심을 하는데 있어 중요한 요소다. 한국도 예외는 아니지만, 한국인들의 경제력에 대한 집착은 남다르다.
작년 결혼정보회사 듀오에 의하면 1,446명의 여성 응답자 중 34퍼센트가 경제력 (22.74%)과 직업(11,41%)을 배우자 선택 시 우선 고려사항으로 꼽았다. 30퍼센트의 응답자가 성격, 9퍼센트의 응답자가 외모를 우선 고려사항으로 뽑았다. 남자의 경우 31퍼센트의 응답자가 성격을, 22.27퍼센트의 응답자가 외모를 우선 고려사항을 꼽았다.
황상민 연세대 심리학과 교수는 젊은 세대들의 “결혼방정식”은 부모세대의 그것을 능가하는데, “소위 말하는 스펙으로 공식이 급격히 확장”되었다고 최근 저서 “짝,사랑”에서 밝히고 있다.
“서로 마음에 드는 대상을 만나서 오랫동안 같이 지내면 결혼에 골인할 가능성이 높아질 거라는 생각은 이제 옛 이야기가 되어버렸다”라고 황교수는 말한다.
이러한 현상에 기름을 붓는 세력이 있으니 결혼정보회사라고 한다. “‘당신’이라는 고유한 사람을 기준으로 조건을 탐색하는 게 아니라, 일반적인 기준 즉 누구에게나 적용되는 이상적인 기준을 염두에 두고 탐색하기 때문이다. 오늘날 그 기준은 ‘돈’으로 통일되었다,”라고 황교수는 말한다.
선조들의 결혼 기준은?
돈과 결혼은 뗄래야 뗄 수 없는 관계는 예나 지금이나 마찬가지이다. 하지만 그 관계는 시대를 걸쳐 변화해 왔다.
국사편찬위원회에서 편저한 혼인과 연애의 풍속도는 선조들이 어떤 기준으로 배우자를 만나 어떤 결혼 생활을 했는지를 잘 보여주고 있다.
책에 따르면 삼국시대를 포함한 고대시대의 남녀관계는 꽤 자유분방했다고 한다. 설화를 보면 많은 여자주인공들이 하룻밤 관계 혹은 결혼을 하지 않은 채로 임신을 하고 아이를 혼자 키운다.
중국역사책인 북사에 고구려에 대한 부분이 있는데, 남녀가 사랑을 하면 결혼했고, 신랑의 집에서 돼지고기와 술을 보냈다고 한다. 금전적인 선물은 없었고, 신부의 집에서 금전적인 선물을 받으면 딸을 노예로 팔았다고 여겨졌다고 한다.
신분제가 있는 고려시대에 접어들며 사람들은 같은 신분끼리 결혼했다. 다른 신분의 사람들이 결혼하면 자식은 낮은 신분을 갖게 되었기 때문이다.
여성들은 시댁에서 살지 않고, 친정에서 생활했는데 고려말, 조선초의 문신 정도전은 여성들이 친정에서 살기 때문에 권력이 너무 세진 현상을 비판했다고 한다.
그 당시에 여성에 대한 차별은 거의 찾아 볼 수 없으며, 딸의 이름은 당연히 호적에 올려졌고, 남녀 성별에 의해서가 아닌 출생순서로 기재되었다고 한다.
당시 결혼비용이 높았을 뿐만 아니라 처가에서 신랑을 데리고 살았기 때문에 신부집안은 경제력이 있어야 했고, 경제력이 없는 여성들은 결혼할 수 없는 경우도 있었다라고 책은 서술한다.
조선시대에도 다른 신분을 가진 사람들은 결혼하지 않았는데, 양반의 경우 여자는 남자의 능력과 집안을, 남자는 여자의 재산과 외모를 많이 봤다고 한다. 남자는 이미 관직을 가지고 있는 이들이 최고의 신랑감이었고, 여자의 집안이 남자의 출세를 금전적으로 보조하는 것이 대세였다고 한다.
결혼적령기를 놓치면 큰 불이익을 당했는데, 국가유공자의 자녀의 경우 돈이 없어 결혼하지 못하면 국가에서 결혼자금을 대어주었고, 여자가 30세까지 결혼을 못하면 부모가 벌을 받았다고 한다.
20세기 초 신여성들이 등장하며 자유연애를 주장했지만, 가부장제사회에서 결혼과 연애를 따로 여기는 여성들이 늘었다고 책은 말한다.
또한 식민지시대에는 남자는 바깥에 나가 일을 하고 여자는 집에서 내조하는 일본식 문화가 한국에도 퍼졌다고 한다.
“짝,사랑”의 저자 황상민 교수는 책에서 88올림픽 전까지는 배우자의 학벌을 중시했지만 90년대로 접어들며 교육수준보다는 돈이 더 중요한 가치로 떠오르기 시작했다고 한다. 학벌이 좋다고 해서 돈을 잘 버는 것도 아니고, 과외나 유학을 통해 학벌을 돈으로 살 수 있는 세상이 왔기 때문이다.
짝을 만나 결혼에 골인하기 까지 경제적 요건들은 많은 미혼남녀의 의사결정을 좌우한다. 경제적으로 독립했기 때문에 결혼의 필요성을 느끼지 않는 커리어 우먼도 있고, 결혼자금 마련 때문에 짝이 있어도 결혼을 미루는 김씨가 있다.
더 나아가 결혼을 결심하고 신혼집, 혼수를 준비하는 과정에서 헤어지는 커플들을 주변에서 쉽게 찾을 수 있다. 결혼정보회사 선우의 부설 한국결혼문화연구소에 따르면 2009년 결혼비용은 평균 1억7천5백만원에 육박했다. 2005년의 1억2천8백만원, 2000년의 8천2백만원에 비해 많이 오른 수치다. 이 중 신혼집 마련을 위한 비용이 평균 1억2천7백만원으로 전체 비용의 72.5퍼센트나 차지했다. 또한 이중의 43.1퍼센트는 결혼 당사자들이 아닌 그들의 부모들로부터 조달되었으니, 통상 신혼집을 마련해야 하는 신랑쪽의 부모의 부담이 크다.
결혼의사가 있는 미혼남녀가 줄어들고, 출산율이 하락하는 현상은 정부에게 풀어야 할 큰 숙제로 다가오고 있다. 결국 결혼을 사회를 안정시키고 경제를 발전시키는 큰 요소 중 하나로 생각되고 있기 때문이다.
삼성경제연구소에 의하면 현재 저출산율이 이어진다면 한국 인구는 2100년에는 2468만명으로 반으로 줄어들고, 2500년에는 33만명 정도로 줄어들어 민족의 존재가 위협받을 수 있다고 한다.
삼성경제연구소는 다자녀가구에는 더 많은 연금과 상속세 면제를 주고, 교육비 지출에 대한 세금을 감면해 주고 신혼부부에게는 주택을 마련하는데 있어 도와주어야 한다고 한다.
정부가 기업들로 하여금 여성들을 위한 근무환경을 개선하라고 권고하고 있는데, 어떤 기업들은 적극적으로 사내연애를 권장하기도 한다.
LG디스플레이 경우 2010년 9월까지 349 사내커플이 탄생했다. 권영수 전 CEO는 결혼한 사내커플들에게 자신의 자동차를 웨딩카로 빌려주기도 했었다.
그러나 황상민 교수는 경제적 요소와 관련된 정부의 정책은 저출산율을 해결할 수 없고, 스펙을 보고 한 결혼은 행복할 수 없다고 “짝,사랑”에서 밝힌다. 아이를 낳지 않는 이유는 아이를 낳아 기르는 것이 더 이상 즐거운 일이 아니고, 결혼한 커플들이 서로에 대한 믿음이 부족하기 때문이라고 한다. 또한 결혼 당시 고려했던 스펙은 변할 수 있고, 결혼에 대한 환상도 점점 사라질 수 있다고한다.
“’완벽하게 현실적인 조건을 추구하면 완벽하게 행복해질 것’이라는 믿음이 지배적이다. 하지만 안타깝께도 이것은 그냥 믿음이고 기대일 뿐이다”라고 황교수는 말한다.