Parents and friends of Oh Sung-keun called him “crazy” when he quit his job at a local hospital about 10 years ago. It was a well-paying and stable job in Korea, which was reeling from the worst financial crisis in decades in Asia at the time.
The financial crisis forced many companies, large and small, to lay off workers as part of self-rescue efforts. Just having a job was regarded as a blessing as there was no end in sight for the crisis and economic downturn.
Oh, however, did not hesitate at all. It was neither because of a better job offer nor a study opportunity. He made the decision to leave the company in order to take on what he thought was the more important job for his own family: housekeeping.
“I was paid more than my wife, a public servant, and I worked just five days a week years before the five-day workweek system was introduced nationwide,” the 46-year-old househusband said in a recent interview.
“But I didn’t hesitate in giving up my career when my wife told me that she really wanted to work again after giving birth. Before marriage, I promised that I can give up my job for my wife’s career. I kept the promise and my wife also sided with my decision.”
“Househusband” Oh Sung-keun.
With the decision, Oh went against the main view in Korean society, where males should be the breadwinner and females should be the family’s caretaker.
He had to endure many biased views. Despite still being a minority, he has more friends than before in recent years as a growing number of men are willing to trade in their career for a full-time housekeeping job.
According to data by Statistics Korea, the number of househusbands rose to 156,000 in 2010, up 34.5 percent from 116,000 in 2005. The figure has been on the steady rise since dropping to 103,000 in 2003, the lowest level since related data started to be compiled.
“Househusband” was not a familiar term here until the 1997-98 Asian financial turmoil sparked massive layoffs, forcing many middle-aged men to leave companies and stay at home against their will.
Losing jobs and staying at home was shameful for many men here in this patriarchal society. They have to endure people’s views that unemployed males are “economically incapable” and “losers.”
The biased views might be based on Confucianism deep rooted in Korea, where there is an unspoken rule that fathers should work outside and mothers should stay at home to take care of the family.
That appears to be changing in recent years and behind the change lies a prolonged economic downturn, which accelerated the advance of women as a formidable workforce in many areas long dominated by male workers, experts say.
“Unemployment, early retirement and toughened labor market situations hit guys harder than women. That forced women to go out and land jobs to financially support their families,” said Kang Hak-joong, the head of the Korean Institute of Family Studies.
“In this process, economic participation by women has increased. At the same time, many talented women are joining the workforce and doing excellent jobs in many areas, including well-paying professional areas, which had long been dominated by males.”
Ironically, as females are chipping away at men’s domination in many areas, the stigma attached to home-bound husbands has been easing. Now many say that if women can do anything that men can, then why shouldn’t it work both ways?
The changed view can be seen in a recent poll.
According to the poll by Incruit Corp., a local job placement portal, 70.2 percent of 439 college students think “positively” about men being housekeepers. Of them, 60.6 percent said that gender has nothing to do with who should do housekeeping work.
With the changing perception on gender roles, Kang said that the number of househusbands will likely increase further down the road, but he cautioned against reading too much into the poll results.
“Perception has changed that females can do anything that males do and the opposite also holds true,” he said. “But there are still biased views against guys who give up their work for household chores and childrearing.”
The problem, however, might not be the bias directed against househusbands but the responsibilities that they have to deal with on a daily basis, said Oh, who now marks the 12th year as a stay-at-home husband.
“It does not matter what other people say about you,” he said.
“What is more important is whether you have a philosophy and are ready for the work. You should be proud of yourself in doing your work whether it is as a housekeeper or hospital consultant.
“Also important is the agreement within a family. I don’t think there are any special genes for mothers to have to take care of the household work. Gender is useless in this area. What is needed is conversation and agreement for a better family life.”
Oh is now regarded as a talented and veteran housekeeper. He sometimes advises would-be-househusbands through his own Web site, while publishing books detailing the know-how that he has accumulated in coping with daily routines and raising his daughter.
Nevertheless, he still thinks that household work is by no means an easy job, though many devices such as laundry machines, robot cleaners and dishwashers have reduced the burden.
Now he understands very well what women, including his mother, had to endure to take care of families at home. Asked about what was the toughest thing to do as a househusband, he cited child rearing, calling it a “rewarding but quite daunting” job.
“One of the good “things as a househusband is that I can spend time with my daughter and watch her grow,” he said. “But I would rather go to the military service again if I had to raise another child,” he jokingly said with a smile.