Faculty Spotlight: The Rise of Non-Normative Households in South Korea

November 1, 2019
Professor Paul Change, stands smiling in foreground wearing light blue button-up shirt, in background is greenery

The dramatic transformation of family patterns in advanced capitalist societies has received much attention in both academia and the popular press. News coverage of family change in East Asia, especially, is fueling alarm and anxiety with frequent stories about how low-fertility rates are contributing to rapidly aging populations, an unsustainable trend given the fragility of pension programs specifically, and welfare systems generally. The “family crisis” in East Asia has already motivated unprecedented policy strategies: the limited opening of the Japanese domestic labor market to foreign workers, international marriage tours orchestrated by the South Korean government, and the Chinese government’s rescinding of the one-child policy.


Paul Chang draws on the South Korean case to better understand the mechanisms driving the diversification of family structures. South Korea is an exemplary case of the demographic revolution sweeping East Asia. Among OECD nation-states, it currently boasts the lowest fertility rate (0.98 in 2018!) and the highest suicide rate (largely driven by suicides among the elderly population). Furthermore, South Korea in the 1990s spearheaded the strategy to outsource wives for underprivileged men and today, international unions account for nearly ten percent of all marriages. The implications of the growing number of these “multicultural families” are many, especially when thinking about the expanding proportion of multi-ethnic children in a country that fancies itself to be an ethnically homogenous nation. The book project draws on various data sources – historical archives, survey data, interviews – to help explain the rise of four non-normative household patterns in South Korea: never-married single-person households, single-mother households, multicultural families, and (the isolation of) senior citizens.