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Marriage race: South Koreans get cautious, calculative in search for ‘the one’



Marriage race: South Koreans get cautious, calculative in search for ‘the one’​


Young South Koreans are now looking at factors such as occupation and salary when looking for partners. PHOTO: AFP

JUN 07, 2024, 02:10 PM

SEOUL – Why is it so hard to find someone to marry?
This question torments 28-year-old Kim Jeong-sik (not his real name), who invests significant time and money in his search for a suitable partner. For him, it is not all about love or destiny but about finding someone with whom he can build a “decent family”, ideally someone from a similar or higher economic and social status.
“While I used to fall for romance and attraction based on instinct in the past, now I think about whether the person is competent, financially stable and suitable to develop a future with. I do not even initiate dates with people I cannot picture the future with even though I am attracted to them. In that sense, I currently have the perfect girlfriend, but that doesn’t mean that I am attracted to her.”
Although he has a “perfect girlfriend”, Mr Kim added that he is still contemplating the most fitting partner for a successful marriage – a struggle shared by many young Korean adults navigating the “marriage market”.
Ms Kang, a 28-year-old office worker in Seoul who is actively seeking a boyfriend, receives brief introductions of a man’s height, residence, company name and alma mater almost daily.
It is an unspoken rule among Koreans in their 20s and 30s to prepare such descriptions, often accompanied by two to three pictures, to facilitate blind dates arranged by acquaintances, according to her.
Rather than meeting random people from dating apps or social gatherings, they prefer strangers introduced by friends, as “the person is better vetted and there is a lower chance of meeting swindlers or someone weird”.
These profiles are sometimes exchanged like business cards. “If an introduction of a person I get is not satisfactory, I toss it to my friends... if they both want to be introduced, their contacts are exchanged,” Ms Kang said.
Despite finding it emotionally draining to meet new people every week, she feels compelled to continue the process.
“Everything feels like a business, having to mull over all the conditions. But I fear that if I don’t find a boyfriend to marry now, I will... be left with only a few choices of eligible men and that makes me keep searching,” she added.
“I feel like I am in a race competing with other women my age to find a good boyfriend before everyone takes them all.”
Mr Kim and Ms Kang identify as part of the MZ generation – known for being more liberal, self-expressive and inclined towards the fulfilment of personal pleasures.
Born in the 1990s when South Korea reaped the benefits of economic growth and technological advancements, this generation has also faced significant pressures and challenges in a highly competitive and rapidly changing society.
Observers note that these social changes have influenced their approach to making crucial life choices in early adulthood, including the pursuit of marriage.
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Ms Kwak Keum-joo, professor emeritus of psychology at Seoul National University, points to a widespread perception in South Korea that marriage is one of the keys to attaining a “successful life”.
“Korea is a society that strongly encourages individuals to strive for improvement, earn more and achieve promotions. The country’s rapid and condensed development placed a premium on success and advancement, intensifying materialism and consumption,” said Ms Kwak.
This is why prospective partners are often meticulously evaluated on factors such as occupation, salary, physical appearance, age and lifestyle. Even family backgrounds, including parents’ jobs, education level and pension coverage, are considered.

Ideal partners in marriage market​

Rather than finding a compatible partner, people often seek those who rank highest in economic and social aspects, like graduating from a prestigious university or working at a major conglomerate, Ms Kwak noted.
“Rankism is prevalent in Korea,” she said, adding that it can be based on, say, schools or companies. “And because Korea was a hierarchical society, even though there are no formal classes among people nowadays, unseen classes still define individuals.”
According to Duo Information, one of the major matchmaking businesses, the “ideal husband” is typically 178.7cm tall, earns 60.7 million won (S$59,640) annually, possesses 335 million won in assets, is two years older than the woman, a university graduate and an office worker.
The “ideal wife” is 164.2 cm tall, earns 44 million won annually, has 217 million won in assets, is 2.3 years younger, a university graduate and an office worker.
These trends were highlighted in a recent TV reality programme Couple Palace, which provided insights into the 2024 marriage market in Korea.
It featured 100 single men and women openly airing their qualities and desires, from income to property ownership to occupation.
The most popular scene from the show involved a woman rejecting a man for “not being able to afford a house” in upscale Seoul locale Gangnam, even though she was attracted to him.
This development sparked public debate over materialism in Korean society.
Reviewers found the show successful in presenting the paradoxical phenomenon of a boom in matchmaking despite all-time low births and marriages.
The number of marriages in South Korea has steadily decreased over the past decades from some 435,000 in 1996 to below 200,000 in 2021. A record low of 192,000 marriages in 2022 marked a plunge of more than 55 per cent in 25 years, according to recent data by Statistics Korea.
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Though there was a slight uptick last year, with around 194,000 marriages, observers said this could in part be due to couples finally tying the knot after they were held back by Covid-19.
A survey by Statistics Korea last year also highlighted that only half the population considered marriage as essential.
This sentiment was particularly strong among women while only 29 per cent of teenagers viewed marriage as a necessity.

Matchmaking as risk management​

Duo Information reported a record-high revenue of 38.2 billion won last year, up 5.2 per cent from the previous year, according to the Financial Supervisory Service’s electronic disclosure system.
The firm’s revenue hovered around 28 billion won until 2020 but surged 35.9 per cent as more people outsourced the partner-finding process.
An employee at a matchmaking firm told The Korea Herald: “Rather than spending time and patience on normal dates, our clients hope to find a partner with matching conditions quickly.
“Our job is to shorten the process, revealing crucial details like family background and income early on, which are usually considered rude to ask about initially.”
A 29-year-old surnamed Jang, who is using a matchmaking firm, said the status of a potential partner is vital because marriage could be a “social ladder” to get to higher economic and social tiers.
“Let’s be honest. Though it is snobbish, it’s true people want to marry someone who is better than themselves so they can level up their economic and social status through a partner,” he added.
Ms Kwak noted that the fear of failure is another factor for such a phenomenon.
“Marriage is now a choice, not a necessity in Korea. Young people are cautious and calculative, trying to avoid losses when marrying someone,” she said. THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK