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Changing definition of Korean family

In the hit drama “Reply 1988,” which vividly portrayed Korea in the ’80s, protagonist Deok-seon usually begins and ends her day by having a meal with her family, while watching television. This was when TV sets were becoming popular in Korea and served as the center of home life.

But times have changed and it is rare to come across such a scene nowadays.
A man is eating alone at a restaurant specially designed for “honbobjok,” people who eat alone, in Sinchon, Seoul. Yonhap
A man is eating alone at a restaurant specially designed for “honbobjok,” people who eat alone, in Sinchon, Seoul. Yonhap
Shin Hyang-gi, 50, who lives in Seoul with her husband and three children, said she cannot remember the last time she watched TV with her family.

“Even when all my children are at home, they spend time separately watching their favorite shows on streaming websites via smartphones,” said Shin.

According to a survey released this week on 6,637 individuals who live with their family in Korea, one-third of them said they watched TV alone at home.

Of the 2,190 respondents who watched TV alone, 67 percent cited lack of time with family members as the reason, while 27.2 percent prefer different channels and 5.6 percent do so in order to prevent children from binge-watching.

South Korea has traditionally valued a family-oriented lifestyle largely influenced by Confucianism that highlights filial piety, however, modern-day Koreans now have different lifestyle patterns.

Society these days centers on work and involves long commuting hours. The lifestyle of youths also has a heavy emphasis on studies. Such factors are gradually dissolving the definition of family here, experts said.

“Koreans are living a dull monochromatic life. The young generation does not have enough time to spend with their family after studying or working late. Those in their 50 and 60s have worked for their entire life so they do not know how to spend quality family time,” said professor Lee Taek-gwang from Kyunghee University.

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average working hours for Koreans is the highest at 2,285 hours annually, about 30 percent higher than the average. 

Data from Statistics Korea also stated that in 2015, just 43 minutes out of a total of 4 hours and 28 minutes of daily spare time was spent with other people including family members.

Family bonds are also being reshaped by the soaring number of single-person households, who tend to eat meals or spend leisure time alone at home. This lifestyle trend has even led to a new word being coined in Korean, “honbobjok,” which directly translates to “people who eat meals alone.”

“It’s actually more comfortable to eat alone. I think it’s better to save energy and time not having to talk with others while eating,” said 31-year-old worker Bae Chung-yoon. He added that he normally eats at home while listening to music on earphones, with his eyes fixed on his smartphone.

According to statistics, single-person households made up about 26 percent, or 5 million, of the total households tallied in 2015. By 2035, this number is expected to swell to 7 million, or 34 percent of total households.

Experts anticipate that this lifestyle trend will continue.

“In fact, being alone in Korean society has its upside as it can help people to achieve high quality performance, since they do not have to unnecessarily worry about mingling or reading others’ emotions,” professor Gwak Geum-ju from Seoul National University told The Korea Herald.

“Families are certainly a source of support and a medium for sharing emotions. But obsessive dependence on each other has also often become a bane for familial relationships in Korea,” she added.

“Koreans should make use of their family in a wiser way, along with changing lifestyles and the social definition of family.”

By Kim Da-sol (