But a new government report underlines how drastically that trend has accelerated over the past decade, spelling demographic trouble for the aging nation in the years ahead.
The report, which surveys residents between the ages of 19 and 34 every two years, was released Monday by the official Statistics Korea.
It found just 36.4 percent respondents polled last year said they had a positive perception of marriage – down from 56.5 percent in 2012.
The fall reflects the growing pressures on young South Koreans, including economic concerns such as unaffordable housing and rising costs of living.
Common reasons cited in the report for young people not getting married include not having enough money for marriage, and the feeling it’s simply not necessary.
And among the third of respondents with a positive perception of marriage, results skew heavily toward men – with just 28 percent of women responding positively.
There could be various reasons for this; multiple South Korean women told CNN in 2019 they had safety concerns when it comes to dating, exacerbated by high-profile news stories about sex crimes, voyeurism and gender discrimination.
Women’s advancements in education and the workplace also mean the “opportunity cost of marriage” is much higher for women now than in previous generations; by getting married, they may have to compromise on their career or education, especially given entrenched gender norms and difficulties re-entering work after childbirth, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
That means many educated women with steady jobs are instead postponing marriage and parenthood. There’s even a word, “bihon,” that refers to women who choose to forgo marriage.
Attitudes among respondents toward childbirth are similarly dismissive, the Statistics Korea report found. Of those surveyed last year, more than half said they didn’t see the need to have a child, even after marriage – a rate that has been steadily rising since 2018.
But in a shift from South Korea’s typically conservative views, the idea of single parenting is gaining popularity. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said they could have a child without marriage, a departure from traditional norms in the country.
While having a baby is very much expected of married couples in South Korea, much of society still frowns on single parents. IVF treatment is not offered to single women, official hospital figures show. Meanwhile, couples in non-traditional partnerships also face discrimination; South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriage and regulations make it difficult for unwed couples to adopt.
But experts say authorities may need to change these attitudes, and fast, if they are to pull the country back from its looming demographic crisis.
Last year South Korea’s fertility rate, already the world’s lowest, fell to a record low of 0.78 – not even half the 2.1 needed for a stable population and far below even that of Japan (1.3), currently the world’s grayest nation.
Efforts to fix the problem so far have proved largely ineffective. The government has spent more than $200 billion over the past 16 years to encourage more people to have children, with little to show for it.