Min Kyeong-seok isn’t shy about eating alone at restaurants or staying alone in luxury hotels, and shares his experiences online on his blog “One happy person.”
“I want to show people that I live a happy life despite being single,” says Min, 37.
“South Koreans often see single people as pitiful, lonely, or lacking in something, whether 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 engage in activities alone is a growing trend in South Korea. It even has its own word, “honjok”, a combination of the Korean words for “by myself” and “tribe”. People who follow a honjok do it voluntarily and with confidence, without worrying about the judgment of others. Min is one of a growing number of young people in the country who are embracing the single life. Some have chosen to remain single, while others delay marriage and children. Some women go further into celibacy and rule out marriage altogether, a choice known as “noodles”.
In 2020, the proportion of single-person households in Korea reached an all-time high of 31.7%. People in their twenties and thirties made up the largest single-person household age groups. Marriage and birth rates in the country are at record highs, with young people blaming the high cost of living and home ownership for their reluctance to marry. In South Korea, owning a house is traditionally considered a prerequisite for marriage and in the past four years the average price of an apartment in the capital Seoul has doubled.
Raising children is also becoming more expensive, and the burden of private schooling – seen by many South Koreans as essential – has pushed back many plans to start a family.
Joongseek Lee, a professor at Seoul National University who researches single-person households, says that even though South Korea remains a collective and patriarchal society, there is a growing tendency “to stay alone or become independent when you have the opportunity”.
While attitudes change, traditional expectations remain. For women, this includes marriage at 30, quitting their job to become full-time mothers and housewives. For men, it’s about providing a home and being the breadwinner.
Min says the country’s traditional structures prevent him from being himself, and instead he wants to have a “flexible” life.
“In Korean society, you feel like you are constantly assigned missions, going to a good school and university, getting a job, getting married and having children. When you don’t fulfill your set of pre-determined missions, you will be judged and you will be asked why.
The rise of honjok and bihon
For Seoul-based university student Lee Ye-eun, widespread gender inequality has influenced her lifestyle. South Korea has the worst gender pay gap among OECD countries. The country ranked last on The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index for a ninth consecutive year, measuring where women have the best and worst chances of equal treatment at work.
Lee declared his bihon status, vowing never to marry.
“I’m not going to date, I’m not going to get married and I certainly won’t have a baby – even if you give me money,” says the 25-year-old.
“I didn’t promise not to get married because there are no good men, but because society wants women to be at a greater disadvantage when entering a relationship.”
New businesses and offers have sprung up to cater to the booming singles and singles markets in South Korea.
The Seoul city government has set up a task force developing services for single-person households, such as low-cost security cameras, mental health workshops and opportunities for singles to make kimchi – a staple in any household.
Hotels are also trying to attract solo guests with “me time” single occupancy stay packages. Eating alone, also called “Honbap” and part of the honjok lifestyle, is expected to grow as a trend in 2022, including in expensive restaurants. Convenience stores offer more personalized products and services for people living alone. And the pet economy is expected to grow in the coming years, according to the Korea Rural Economic Research Institute, as more people choose pets over parenthood.
Develop the idea of family
Lee Ye-eun says embracing the single life rather than the bonds of marriage and child-rearing creates room for other hobbies.
The time spent with her close friends has become more precious, and she hopes to create a community of like-minded people. With an app for noodles women, she joins a sports group that she meets several times a week for activities such as rock climbing and football.
Kang Ye-seul, 27, is a college employee who also chose never to marry. She says staying single gives her more freedom and allows her to pursue hobbies and spend time with her unmarried friends.
“I feel like I’m in a completely different world,” Kang says positively of her life decision.
“In the past, I yearned for happiness, wondered what it was, by what criteria to evaluate it, and was curious about other people’s standards,” she says.
She remains cautiously optimistic about the place of single people in society.
“A feeling of freedom and happiness followed after learning that I could live a bihon life. Now, whatever I do is a choice for me, so I don’t feel overwhelmed or afraid of the responsibility that comes with it. I don’t think I will ever be as unhappy as before.
Government attitudes and social awareness toward single-person households still lag behind the direction in which society is moving, Kang says. She would like to see a more accommodating society with non-traditional household structures, like living together without being married or tied to each other.
Last year, the government announced that it would consider broadening the scope of the term “family” which could eventually include cohabitation and single parenthood, the latter still being stigmatised.
“There are still limitations to the system for one-person households,” Kang told the Guardian.
“But I also see things positively given that these households will only increase in number.”