Will single-person households create a health crisis?

future family
category - dating
sector - health & wellness
type - opinion
As the number of people living alone increases in South Korea, mental and physical health issues are becoming a major societal concern.

South Korea is becoming a single’s haven, with the number of single-person households on a continuous rise – climbing 3.3% since 2016.

Reflecting this trend is the term ‘solo economy’, which refers to the industry that caters specifically to singles. Businesses and brands are offering smaller household appliances, smaller portions of ingredients at supermarkets, and convenient ready-to-make meals called Home Meal Replacements (HMR). There’s subscription services for daily necessities such as water and tissues, and delivery services that can be called upon for almost anything.

For decades, the traditional four-person family household had been the most common household type in South Korea. In the last decade, however, the social demographic has shifted 180-degrees. Now, in 2019, single-person households have become the most common household type accounting for 36.9% of all homes, whereas four-person households have fallen to just 16.7% of the nation’s total 22.17 million households.

This change is widely attributed to the shift in Koreans’ value system regarding family, marriage and life. Young people are avoiding or opting out of marriage, more people are getting divorced and more families are living apart due to various involuntary reasons – college, work or overseas education.

In addition to the change in belief that marriage is not a necessity, unemployment and housing are two big barriers to marriage; finding a job and purchasing a house are becoming increasingly difficult due to the sluggish economy and rising real estate prices. Women’s active involvement in the economy has also contributed to the rise in Uncoupled Living, as more women prefer to delay marriage and live alone if they can financially support themselves.

'The Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs estimates one in 10 elderly single people have thought of taking their own lives – double the number of those living with families'

Published by:

10 July 2019

Author: Suhyoung Yun

Image: Year & Day


Year & Day

Although single-person households show the highest average spending per person among all household types, this is mostly a result of the singles group in their 30s and 40s who are actively engaged in the economy and financially secure.

Then comes those in their 50s and 20s – groups that are less financially stable but still make a living. A large portion of their spending goes on food, mostly convenient food items represented by HMR products such as Yorihada or Peacock.

But the fastest-growing contributor to the increasing number of single-person households is South Korea’s elderly population. According to Statistics Korea, a third of the single-person households are currently aged over 60 years, and by 2035, this age group will account for over 50% of solo residents.

'Products and services continue to be developed to cater to the single segment, including insurance to assist landlords after a single tenant’s death'

Indeed, single Koreans in their 60s are perhaps the most concerning group when it comes to mental and physical wellbeing. Retired, unemployed, divorced or bereaved, they are often involuntarily living alone simply due to their age. Often unable to make ends meet, their pension is spent on necessities and utility bills. Even if they want to spend their money on healthcare, most can’t afford it. As a result, the percentage of chronic diseases and hospitalisation rates are higher in these older households.

In terms of mental health, loneliness and depression are looming issues. The Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs estimates four out of 10 elderly people living alone suffer from depression, while one in 10 have thought of taking their own lives. This is double the number of those living with families.

Products and services continue to be developed to cater to this single segment, from insurance for solitary death to assist landlords after a single tenant dies, to safety alarms and internet of things (IoT) products that send family members an alert if at-home inactivity lasts for more than 48 hours.

However, in my view, much more needs to be done to positively support older singles. As our society ages and the number of elderly single households grows, there is an urgent need for businesses to provide services and products that are necessary and useful for the aged, at an affordable price. It’s time for businesses to turn their eyes to supporting the elderly and vulnerable singles, instead of the young and moneyed.

Suhyoung Yun is a freelance journalist and contributor to media companies including the South China Morning Post and The Korea Times.

For more insight on the impact of single-person households and the movement towards less traditional living, read our Macrotrend : Uncoupled Living.

'Change is widely attributed to the shift in Koreans’ value system regarding family, marriage and life. Young people are avoiding or opting out of marriage, more people are getting divorced'

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