Households with only one or two people have become prevalent and the trend will increase in the years ahead, according to a recent Statistics Korea report. This will upend the traditional norm of at least three persons or a couple with one or two children.
Some people will say families are dissolving in this country. Others will say the demographic change is a natural progression of social order in the post-industrial era. In any case, it seems certain that smaller households constitute a megatrend that will alter the foundations of our society, including economy, culture and human relations.
The structures and systems of Korean society have traditionally revolved around households composed of at least two generations. Smaller households mean changing functions and roles of families. As households grow smaller, families will be unable to keep up with their traditional functions of reproduction (childbirth) and child care, mutual caring among family members, and support for the elderly.
These issues definitely fall under welfare, and as with the April 11 general election, universal welfare policies are expected to be a major issue across party lines in the December 19 presidential election.
It is doubtful, however, whether the numerous welfare policy ideas churned out by both the conservative and liberal politicians reflect the shrinking size of households. It may be no exaggeration that welfare policies that do not address this megatrend have little chance of being sustainable. Therefore, it is hoped that in the run-up to the presidential election, the heated welfare debate will include the following two issues.
First, the welfare debate should highlight the health of young people in their 20s and 30s. These age groups will head the small households now and in the future. It has been proven by many researchers that people who live alone are more prone to physical and mental health problems than those who live with their families and that the vulnerability becomes more serious with age. A sharp increase in the number of young people who remain single suggests that the nation`s public health will likely deteriorate. Hence, the welfare debate of politicians should include measures to improve the health of single young people.
Secondly, the re-education of middle-aged people is crucial to extend their work life. The nation`s low birth rate will shrink the future generations and undermine the traditional role of families in mutual caring. Society will have to care for the elderly but it is all too clear that the universal welfare policies currently under debate will be unable to function properly. Therefore, extended participation in labor force by the middle-aged people is imperative. To that end, they should be able to continue working regardless of age. Re-education of this age group should therefore be seen as a welfare issue.
Korean society is already undergoing changes in the composition of families and households. It is earnestly hoped that politicians will draw up welfare policies reflecting this megatrend instead of policies based on today`s population and household types.
[ Munhwa Ilbo, May 14, 2012 ]