Asia Honjok: South Korea's 'loner' movement

Honjok: South Korea’s ‘loner’ movement

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In South Korea, solitude is a sought-after state. As of 2016, there were over 5 million single-person households in the country, making up nearly 28 percent of the total number of households.

In a time of constant digital interaction with others as well as evolving perspectives on family, romance and life, many young people in South Korea choose to focus on themselves. This subculture of aloneness is called honjok.

Honjok, an amalgamation of the words hon (alone) and jok (tribe), is about the celebration of the individual over the group. It is often used to describe a generation that espouses independence, solitude and singleness, particularly as a reaction to the interdependence of today’s world and the expectations set by Korean society.
Young people who are honjok choose to disavow the predicted paths of marriage, work, and family, and embrace the purpose of living their own lives to the fullest. This is an extreme shift from Korea’s traditionally group-oriented social structure.
While it would have been once culturally taboo to drink (honsul) alone, eat (honbap) by yourself, or to travel or watch a film alone (honnol), honjok has changed all of that.

“Ultimately, it’s about taking time for yourself. It’s about letting go of society’s pressures—to get married by a certain age, to work for a steady salary, to never ask questions—and caring less what others think,” wrote Monica Kim of Vogue on the fascinating trend.

Jang Jae Young, manager of a website dedicated to the single lifestyle, honjok.me, told CNN that honkok is about the “stronger desire for self-realization and happiness, even if that means being alone.”

Jang pointed out that this is indicative of the current societal climate, which is focused more on self-fulfillment than providing for the family, as was the main goal of previous generations.

According to Jang, being alone can be a source of contentment.

Michael Breen, author of the book “The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation,” this trend is in direct opposition with the historical traditions of Korean society.

“I think it is a natural consequence of democracy and economic development,” Breen said to CNN.

“In a lot of Asian societies, individual interests and rights have been subordinated to those of family or group organizations. But the longer you exist with democracy the more their values would become individualistic over collective.”

For the first time ever in South Korean history, single-person households have become the more common domestic unit, with women leading the charge. Women make up the majority of single-person households in South Korea, and many of them have chosen not to raise children and get married.

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The number of people living alone has already overtaken families with children. Due to the country’s low birth rate and ageing population, this is expected to increase in the years to come.

Business Korea reported that on September 2, Statistics Korea released the figures on  South Korea’s average total fertility rate in the period of 2015 to 2018—it was 1.11, the lowest in the entire world.

The total fertility rate is the number of children expected to be born to each woman aged 15 to 49.

Data from the United Nations shows the total fertility rate average of 201 countries from 2015 to 2020 is 2.47, with South Korea (1.1.), Taiwan (1.15), Macao (1.2), Singapore (1.21), Puerto Rico (1.22) and Moldova (1.26) lagging behind the rest of the world.

As many South Korean millennials are facing an increasing shortage of jobs and financial security, these young men and women are deliberately choosing to remain alone and reject the expected path of dating, marriage and family life.

Being alone seems preferable to struggling to find a mate, battling uphill costs for having partners and raising a family, and fighting the conventions that still persist in South Korean society, leftovers from a historical past—that the man must provide everything for the family, and that the woman must serve in the home.

But Honjok youth are pushing back—it’s okay to be alone, it’s okay to choose your own path, and it’s okay to find fulfilment in yourself, they say.

South Korean businesses and establishments have recognised and made way for the honjok culture, with restaurants deliberately setting up single-seat tables and brands focusing on innovative products for single-person households, such as furniture pieces with multiple functions. /TISG

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