“4→2→1” Can you guess what it means? These numbers represent the changing number of family members. A family of four members was most common in the past, but now, a single household seems like a general trend. According to the NSO (National Statistical Office), families consisting of parents with children had the largest number of households in 2010. However, single households will be the largest group at 34.3% in 2035. Single households already account for almost 25% of domestic households. Why do these people live alone? And how do they live their single lives? Let’s take a look into it.
Why do people live alone?
The number of single households has been increasing not only in Korea but also in other countries. What is the reason that more and more people live alone? In respect to the economy, single households increasing means the increasing of people who can earn their own livings. Also, there are many other reasons such as aging. The distribution of the single household population proves it. In 2010, the single household population was distributed in the order of people aged 35~64 (44.2%), people under 35 (30.4%) and people over 65 (25.4%). But studies predict it will later be distributed as people aged 65 and over (45.0%), people aged 35~64 (38.3%), and people under 35 (16.7%). With increasing life expectancy, more elderly people will live alone.
Then, what other reasons are there for the increase of single households? This is the first time in human history that so many people have lived alone, so many scholars in various fields have analyzed data to find causes. Individualism, which puts a high value on personal achievement, is the most persuasive analysis among many others. Modern people choose to live alone, as in the past people chose to live in nuclear family, due to regarding their individual lives as important. Actually, there is a study that shows the trend of individualism in thirty-something and forty-something single households. Those in single households usually have strong individual inclinations and strong desires for self-expression, so they spend more time and money to invest in themselves. Korean people are especially willing to spend money to look good and to eat good food.
Reinforcing women’s identity is another one of the reasons for the increase in single households. People started to consider marriage as no longer mandatory for women in the 20th century, at the time women started to be educated and to work. This reason is a kind of good thing because unmarried young people do not have to consider marriage as a constraint.
On the other hand, divorce and unemployment are also some of the reasons that cause people to live alone. You may know that the divorce rate and unemployment rate have been increasing all over the world. Sadly, these social problems lead to more people living alone. Because of this, some people regard single households as a social problem. They insist that single household members will be socially isolated and that it will lead to social chaos.
Unlike these people, there are people who regard single households as a normal phenomenon. They say that people living in single households are also members of our society. In fact, we can see many people living alone everywhere around us. These people can be your friends, family members, or even me. Are they isolated and creating social chaos? We should think about it.
Market's Change from Increase of Single Households
There is a compound word derived from the single household.
This is 'single-sumer,' which combines ‘single’ with ‘consumer’. The single-sumer began to become a target of the market as a major consumer group due to the recession. Their consumption tendency is 'buy the barest necessities, only as much as I need'. As a result of these aspects, companies have focused on low volume, low price, and departmentalization when they produce products. If expediency is added to this, that's the perfect item for the single-sumer.
Representative examples are compact packages groceries and Home Meal Replacements (HMR) selling at hypermarkets and on the internet. For single-sumers, a hypermarket sells one half of a watermelon, a piece of white radish, a piece of mackerel, and so on. Even vegetables and fruit are displayed washed. Pulmuone recently released a brand-new tofu that is separately packaged as a quarter the size of the original. This tofu is more expensive than the same amount of other tofu, but the sales volume is higher than the previous one because it can keep fresh by being eaten up all at once.
Besides product form, purchasing method has also moved to online or home shopping. Online and home shopping have many strong points like delivery service, handiness, and low price. The appearance of 'Show Rooming' and 'Cheap Chic' show consumers’ consumption tendency. Direct transaction through the internet is also popular, because direct transaction users don't pay a distributor and the saving is passed on to the users. Actually, the distribution cost reaches about 40% among the products’ prices. If you only order your needs (size, quantity, washing), you will satisfy your needs and also save money.
Single-sumers and convenience store foods are also truly inseparable. People who dislike the preparation process of meals want to have meals briefly with convenience store foods. Conditions of the convenience store foods are “3S”: small, speedy, and simple. Representative convenience store foods which meet those conditions in the store are kimbap, sandwiches, bread, ramyeon, cup rice, packed lunches, rice porridge, and so on. Convenience stores even sell pizza and spaghetti and those foods’ quality and kinds are increasing. Convenience stores have started to sell household medicines such as antipyretic-analgesic, cold medicine, and digestive medicine since last year. Through their endeavors, convenience stores were voted the main beneficiary of the increase in the single household. In the beginning of 2012, the number of convenience stores reached 20,000.
Industry for Solving Single Household Loneliness
Have you heard of the company 'Handipair'? Handipair is the company with total one-stop service that handles everything at home, the office, and so on: interior design, remodeling, environmentally-friendly cleaning, electrical installation, and repair service. Besides Handipair, there are many private errand centers that run on little errands like nailing, changing light bulbs, grocery shopping, or looking after one's dog.
New concept services that soothe singles’ loneliness have increased, and they are going to explode. The unique services such as listening to troubles and abusive language, being an SMS buddy, and seeing movies together capture singles’ loneliness. Besides errand centers, the social dating service 'i-um' which finds the ideal type for members has risen dramatically in popularity and secured around 75,000 members.
As for companionship, single households and the pet industry are bound to one another. The number of people who keep companion animals has reached ten million. This means one in four people keeps a companion animal, and the main group of those is those in their 30s and 40s. According to Auction's recent survey, 68% of animal food buyers are in their 30s and 40s. Jobs related to companion animals have also been formed and continue to develop now, like animal handler, beautician, doctor, nurse, hotel, barista, and even specialist for animal funerals. Animal food made of environmental friendly products is also very popular, and the university subjects related to companion animals continue increasing. The companion animal market scale reached 2 trillion won.
Errand centers, social dating services, and pet industries are just the beginning. Unless the single household disappears, you can't guess these industries’ growth possibility. It is not difficult to expect that increasing employment in those industries will emerge as wide as the ocean.
Special Things for Singles
Recently, many items for singles have been released like mini ovens, mini rice cookers, mini mixers, mini refrigerators, mini toasters, mini vacuum cleaners, mini microwave ovens, single water purifiers, and so on. Among various household electrical appliances, the single coffee maker, robot cleaner and mini wall-mounted washing machine attract attention. The single coffee maker's popularity shows well that singles are pressed for restful leisure time. If singles used the previous coffee machines, they would have to brew about 15 cups of coffee. But single
coffee machines can brew 4~5 cups of coffee, so the user does not have to warm it up or throw it out and can enjoy fresh coffee. The robot cleaner is also worthy of notice. A robot cleaner that could clean during one's absence is a necessity in the single household. If you only time the cleaner, you don't have to waste your time. The mini wall-mounted washing machine has many strong points, too. It has good space occupancy and has the function of boiling and can wash a large amount of laundry. Because its electricity consumption is a seventh of the previous drum washing machine, it is also economical.
Besides mini household electrical appliances, share houses, peanut houses, and capsule hotels are hot commodities. Having a share house is a lifestyle in which many singles live in one house and use their own bedrooms yet share the living room and bathroom. Similarly, the economic advantage of peanut houses (consisting of two houses on one house's site) is very attractive.
Meanwhile, capsule hotel accommodations have been developed in Japan. A capsule hotel's key guests are businessmen who missed the last train or bus. Because of the low cost, Korean tourists use them quite often, too. Recently, many capsule hotels have sprung up in various countries: China, Singapore, Russia, and so on. Single karaoke and single steakhouses have come into the spotlight as well for providing singles’ amusement. Single karaoke started in Japan and was introduced into Korea. In Korea, it can be found around Hongik University in Seoul. It prepares professional music equipment, a system of time saving, low price, and recording equipment.
As for food, in the past, there were many restaurants that rejected the order of just a single portion. Now, all of restaurants allow ordering a single portion in accordance with the increasing number of people who have meals alone. Even the single steakhouse has caught on in popularity, not only for singles but for groups. The single steakhouse was introduced in the same way as single karaoke. Its appearance looks like a reading room that is surrounded by partitions, and you don't need to be aware of other people. Orders and payment are run through using unattended vending machines. This helps timid people to also have a meal easily.
Pros and Cons of Living Alone
There are also pros and cons to living alone in modern society. Let’s look into what the pluses and minuses are.
The first merit of single life is that people can have more time for leisure and self-improvement. People can save time because they don’t have to be bothered by other people. Thus, they can have their own hobbies. These days, there are many travel products for one person, so the number of people who begin their journeys alone increases by leaps.
Next, the single lifestyle promotes industry for ‘single-sumer’. As we have seen, a lot of products for singles have been introduced recently. Manufacturers are releasing new products to attract single-sumers, who are one of the hottest consumer groups. For example, there are ingredients of food that people don’t need to trim and packing products for one person. Plus, restaurants and detective agencies for one person have been vitalized. For these reasons, a single-sumer is a very powerful consumer in modern society.
What is the weakness of a single life style? First, social engagement of our society can collapse. People may come close to forgetting the preciousness of relationships with other people since they have put stress on their own selves. In Japan, where there are many people who live alone, there’s a ‘Hikikomori’ problem. Hikikomori is a person who never goes outside and lives only at home. Plus, the disadvantaged such as older people are in relatively poor circumstances. Although older people who can afford it financially have many choices such as retirement homes and pensions, most of the old people live in poverty. They keep living alone with loneliness and lack of money.
Furthermore, it often happens that old people are found dead after a long time. Among OECD countries, Korea is ranked No.1 for the rate of elderly suicide. It is 17 times more than that of Greece, which has the lowest rate. It’s such a serious level that the government should establish countermeasures. Besides the old age problem, there are many lonely fathers who are called ‘goose fathers’. It’s not rare that such a father lives alone because many wives and children go abroad for studying overseas. Conclusively, a single life style can mean the breakup of family because of excessive pursuit of the single life style. Contemporary man can’t realize preciousness of his surroundings.
An Interview with Professor Kim Hye-kyung in the Department of Sociology
1. What do you think of the outlook for single household members’ transition?
I think the increasing of single households is a big trend that emerged not only in Korea but in Northern Europe, New York, and so on. In the case of Northern Europe, the welfare policy and housing policy are well-developed to support single household life. Increasing of interest in oneself, unlike in the past, is the main factor of this tendency. However, transition to aging society is also an important factor, and it is not an option for people. In Korea, single households comprise men in their 20s and 30s and women over 60 as their major stratum. The appearance of twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, and those over 60 could be reflected similarly, but the point of quality is very different in each. If government's support for the aged women does not increase, they are poles apart in life quality.
2. What shall we do to get ready for the future?
The author of 'Going Solo', Eric Klinenberg, says that satisfaction with the small scale of consumption and self-reliance on social attention are needed to live alone. For singles’ better lives, in addition to the measures for personal mental problems, which go without saying, the social system has to be developed. First of all, the pension system for old people is needed. It could make them more independent in psychological and economical terms. Second, a system under which men and women who don't get married can live a stable life is necessary. Third, university students who live alone in one-rooms have to be considered recipients for receiving support from the government. Without distinction of age or sex, the government has to support singles so they can live easily.
The rate of the single household in Korea is 23.9%, and it has reached approximately 4,140,000 people. Furthermore, this single life style trend is continuing upwards. We can see many people who go to grocery store alone, but only 10 years ago, we could see a mother and her children or a family in a grocery store more easily. As we look deep into the single life style, there are many advantages to having a single person household, but you have to remember this: It is the air of indifference toward other people that should be removed. You should remember the value of others in a single-life society. Those in single households have to pay attention to their relationship with other people, keeping the advantages of their single life style.