Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Changing Role of Employment Status in Marriage Formation among Young Korean Adults

Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Changing Role of Employment Status in Marriage Formation among Young Korean Adults

Article excerpt


A large body of research in the United States and Europe has examined the effect of economic resources, such as income and employment status, on the timing of entry into marriage and cohabitation among young adults (Oppenheimer, Kalmijn, and Lim 1997; Sweeney 2002; Xie et al. 2003; Domínguez-Folgueras and Castro-Martín 2008; Bracher and Santow 1998; Jalovaara 2012). These studies show that young adults' economic resources have a significant impact on the likelihood of union formation, and extend our understanding of marriage divergence between those with higher and lower levels of these resources. Furthermore, comparative studies (Blossfeld 1995; Ono 2003) have demonstrated that cross-national variations in social institutions, such as the education system and labor market, are significantly associated with differing patterns in the process of transition to marital union.

Though a growing number of studies on this topic have looked beyond the Western world, still missing from the literature in an examination of marriage entry among the young population in Korea. Over the past several decades Korea has undergone remarkable economic development, and is now economically comparable to many countries in Europe and North America. Furthermore, as in many Western countries, younger Koreans' marriage formation has transformed significantly: between 1981 and 2014 the mean age at first marriage increased by 6 years for men (from 26.4 to 32.4) and 7 years for women (from 23.0 to 29.8), and between 1980 and 2010 the rate of those not marrying by age 40 increased from 4.7% to 37.9% for men and from 1.9% to 20.7% for women (Statistical Research Institute 2013). What makes these trends particularly interesting is the context in which they occur. Alongside the changes in marriage, women's educational attainment and labor force participation have increased rapidly, while young men's economic position has deteriorated. Furthermore, the labor market, education system, and cultural norms of Korea are distinctive. Taken together, these issues make the experience of young people in Korea interesting to compare with that elsewhere in the world. This paper provides this comparison by examining the determinants of marriage entry in Korea over three decade-long cohorts.


Both economic and sociological theories of marriage have long emphasized the role of economic resources, such as education and labor market standing, on union formation. The independence theory of marriage (Becker 1981) emphasizes the concepts of specialization and exchange, postulating that marriage is a voluntary union of rational individuals with the aim of maximizing utility, and proffers that it can be formed only if benefits outweigh costs. Becker's theoretical framework also assumes that men are generally better positioned in the labor market than women and that women tend to have relative advantages over men in the domestic sphere, because of a normative socialization process. Thus, according to the theory, benefits from marriage are maximized when the husband is specialized in market production and the wife in household tasks. This framework further predicts that women's increasing levels of educational attainment and labor force participation could substitute for the financial support or contribution of a husband and result in a decrease in the gains of marriage for each partner and the desirability of marriage. Becker's theory suggests that having a good position in the labor market will likely facilitate marriage among men but reduce marriage among women.

On the other hand, Oppenheimer's (1988) theory of marriage timing suggests that a woman's high earnings are potentially associated positively with her attractiveness as a marriage partner, particularly after each has completed school, started a job, and reduced uncertainty about their future work roles. Accordingly, in most industrialized countries young men's labor-market position has deteriorated substantially over the past several decades, largely owing to the shift toward a professionalized occupational structure, a decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs, and an increase in more precarious jobs. …

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