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In a classroom at Dongguk University in Seoul, professor Eun-Joo Lee asks her students to draw a bottle, then a bicycle. But this is not an art class.

In fact, it is a “marriage and family” course, and Lee is giving a lesson in challenging gender norms in society.

She says the way people draw gives a measure of their femininity or masculinity. If a woman draws a bicycle starting from the front, it can indicate masculine traits. This is not something negative, she reassures the students, but simply a personality trait to be aware of.

Next up, Lee shows students images of little boys pushing buggies and girls playing with toy tools. These European toy advertisements challenge gender stereotypes, she tells her audience.

Eun-Joo Lee says drawing a bicycle helps students learn about masculinity and femininity. It’s part of her marriage and family course at Dongguk University (Credit: Kwon Moon)

The class is aimed at helping young people navigate relationships and, maybe one day, find the right partner. It is part of a wider effort in South Korea to tackle a very thorny issue – young people aren’t getting married and those who do are not having many children.

It is a complicated topic in a nation with a long history of traditional gender roles, which only began changing with the economic boom in the 1960s.

Sagging birth rates

The deep-rooted view that Korean women are primarily homemakers and men are breadwinners has had a major impact on how today’s young men and women now view marriage and starting a family.

In 2017, South Korea recorded its worst birth rate in history at 1.05 children per woman, well below the level of 2.01 needed to keep the population stable. This is despite the government spending billions of dollars on initiatives to boost national fertility in the past decade – including more paternity leave, paying for infertility treatment and families with three or more children given priority access to public childcare.

The word sampo means 'to give up three things': courtship, marriage and raising children

A similar decline in fertility rates can be seen in other parts of East and South East Asia, such as Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

In South Korea a new phrase has emerged – the Sampo Generation. The word sampo means “to give up three things”: courtship, marriage and raising children.

The rising cost of living and work pressures mean students are putting off marriage and families, says Lee (pictured) (Credit: Kwon Moon)

This phenomenon has developed partly, says Lee, because young people are struggling to get jobs and become financially independent in an economy hit by slow growth and unemployment.

Research shows that for men, financial worries are the biggest deterrent to marriage, she says, and more are coming to see it as a matter of choice rather than a necessity.

The government has spent billions of dollars on initiatives to boost national fertility in the past decade

Women are also worried about financial consequences.

“People around me do not want to get married because it costs a lot to raise babies and send them to school,” says 24-year-old Ji-Won Kim, one of Lee’s students. I have female friends who tend to think paying rent by themselves, buying things they want, raising a puppy and just dating are better.”

'Compressed modernity'

But other factors compound money worries. “There is a saying that your life will vanish once you get married and have children,” she warns. 

Another student, 24-year-old Ji-Myeong Kim, does eventually want to settle down but his current girlfriend needed reassurance about attitudes in his family.

In past decades newly-married Korean women were expected to leave their families and join their husband’s household, in the lowest position on the home hierarchy. Kim had to make it clear to her that his family did not stick to the traditional ways.

People around me do not want to get married because it costs a lot to raise babies and send them to school - Ji-Won Kim

Jean Yeung, professor and director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore, points out that countries such as Korea and Singapore share a “compressed modernity” – a period of rapid social change that accompanied major economic steps forward.

“Changes that took maybe a century or more to happen in Europe took two or three decades to happen [in Asia],” she says. “In many ways economy, education and the role of women changed so quickly that institutions and social norms could not keep up.”

One major area out of step with the needs of modern families is the corporate world.

Rapid social and economic changes in countries like South Korea and Singapore have upended social norms, says National University of Singapore professor Jean Yeung (Credit: Alamy)

Many women “do not want to worry about raising their babies in a corporate culture that does little to accommodate working mothers”, says Lee.

Peter McDonald, professor of demography at the University of Melbourne, says that for employers, a person’s family life is of little or no importance. “East Asia is characterised by an expectation on the part of employers of very long work hours and a dedication first and foremost to the job,” he says.

Another potential deterrent to marriage for women is the gender disparity in the division of housework. According to a 2015 OECD report, Korean men spend, on average, only 45 minutes a day doing household chores, less than a third of the OECD average.

Dating text practice

At the marriage and family course, students work with partners on several exercises. The students refer to it as “mandatory dating” while Lee calls it “pair play”.

The couples are required to undertake tasks that they might face later in a real relationship such as going on affordable dates, planning a theoretical wedding and making a marriage contract covering everything from the division of household chores and styles of parenting to whose parents to visit first on holiday.

They also go back to basics on sex education. Explaining periods to twenty-somethings may seem odd but Lee says schools focus on telling students not to get pregnant rather than giving them knowledge – information that might make them feel more positive about sex and more in control of their fertility.

Whether this kind of grass-roots education can help pull the birth rate upwards remains to be seen. Other countries are trying different ways of jump-starting national fertility.

Even switching the lights out at 7pm in the department failed to motivate government workers to go home and procreate

Singapore incentivises parents through its Baby Bonus scheme, which offers a cash gift for each child, and also matches parents’ savings for their children’s future. But five years on, it looks like these measures have not had much effect on the birth rate.

Korea has also tried to get creative in its own initiatives. In 2010, employees at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs in Seoul were told to go home “early” one Wednesday a month and spend time with their families in an initiative called “Family Day”. But even switching the lights out at 7 pm in the department failed to motivate government workers to go home and procreate.

Yeung says that short-term incentives like these “mean that countries have not tackled the most fundamental issues and adjusted to the gender role changes.”

McDonald, similarly, says efforts in South Korea to boost fertility are pointless without broader societal changes. The government has, in the past, been accused of blaming women for the low birth rate. A pink-themed website which mapped the locations of women of child-bearing age was taken offline after a backlash.

Last year, South Korea recorded its worst birth rate in history at 1.05 children per woman, despite the government spending billions to boost fertility (Credit: Getty Images)

Such misguided initiatives, says McDonald, can lead to women becoming more  entrenched in their low fertility behaviour.

For the students in the classroom, the course is as much about understanding themselves as being coerced into a positive attitude towards family life.

“I thought the way I interacted with my girlfriend was normal, but the personality pattern test I took proved that I am an obsessive person,” admits Ji-Myeong Kim. “I was more conservative than I thought.”

Lee says students are being taught “not to find a perfect person, but to find what kind of person suits them best” – paving the way, hopefully, for happy marriages and happy families.

I prefer financial stability to looks - Ji-Won Kim

But some students still find it difficult to break away from parental expectations.

“My mom tells me that I need to marry a guy with decent economic stability, who lives in a harmonious family, has a good personality and thoughtfulness for others,” says Ji-Won Kim.

But she says she’s prioritising some attributes over others. “I prefer financial stability to looks,” she laughs. “My mom says looks won’t matter once you get married.”

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