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[Editorial] Scope of family

Koreans appear to be taking an increasingly narrow definition of the family. According to a recent survey, only 23.4 percent of Koreans consider their paternal grandparents to be part of the family while 20.6 percent recognized their maternal grandparents as family members. Five years ago, 63.8 percent of Koreans counted their paternal grandparents in while 47.4 percent viewed their maternal grandparents as immediate family members.

The survey, conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family between August and October last year, also found that about one in four Koreans exclude their parents from the family. Five years ago, less than 10 percent of the respondents did so. As for the parents of their spouses, slightly more than a half counted them out. The percentage more than doubled from the 21 percent five years ago.

The survey suggests the accelerating disintegration of the traditional family amid an increase in the number of nuclear families. It also indicates that people’s conception of the family is increasingly based on common residence rather than blood ties. In a modern society, it is difficult for family members to meet together unless they live under the same roof. Family ties get tenuous among members who do not meet frequently. As a result, the scope of the family tends to get narrowed down to members who actually live together.

The change in people’s conception of who constitutes a family has deep implications for society and policymakers as family is the basic unit of society. For instance, the weakening ties between parents and children mean an increased possibility of aged parents being left unattended by their children. This would increase the public cost of care for the old and frail.

Currently, the nuclear family is the dominant form of family in Korea. But the nuclear family is also disintegrating, as shown by the recent growth in single-member families. The number of single-member or two-member families will increase sharply as the baby boomers born following the end of the Korean War in 1953 reaches retirement age. Policymakers need to figure out the implications of this important social change and prepare for it.