South Korean City Holds Mass Blind Dates to Shore Up Birth Rates

Couple at a candle light dinner date holding hands next to bouquet of red roses.
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The South Korean city of Seongnam held a mass blind dating event at a hotel on Sunday evening for the express purpose of helping more young people get married and have children to shore up South Korea’s collapsing birth rates.

Seongnam pulled out all the stops to make magic happen, serenading a hundred singles and surrounding them with “red wine, chocolates, games, free make-up services, and even background checks for the participating singles,” as Reuters reported.

A relationship coach was sent in to break the ice by leading the twenty- and thirty-somethings through a “rock-paper-scissor game,” which might have been uncomfortably close to Squid Games for a romantic mixer.

The attendees seemed pleasantly befuddled by the whole affair. It was actually the fifth in a series of mass mixers held by Seongnam this year. The city government said 198 of the 460 participants left the event with promises to keep in touch.

“We are facing a real demographic crisis and the government needs to do whatever it can. I don’t understand people complaining over this,” one of the participating men told Reuters.

The primary criticisms seem to be that government-sponsored date-and-mate operations are a little creepy and they probably will not work because the major causes of South Korea’s catastrophically low birth rate are high child-rearing expenses, long work hours, expensive real estate, and the opportunity cost of motherhood, not a shortage of venues for young men and women to meet each other.

“You need to spend more money directly on supporting pregnancy, child delivery and parenting to call it a policy to boost birth rates,” scoffed Seoul Women’s University professor Jung Jae-hoon.

The capital city of Seoul canceled its own plans for mass blind dating due to criticism that it would just be a waste of money. On the other hand, the people of Seongnam seem very interested in continuing the events. Thousands of people have signed up, and some of those who attended Sunday’s mixer said they were surprised at how competitive the sign-ups were.

The mayor of Seongnam, Shin Sang-jin, said he was under no illusions that low birth rates could be “resolved with a single policy,” but he thought the city could help “create the environment for people who want to marry to find their partners.” 

Shin also thought the singles events could promote “positive views of marriage” and encourage people to think of dating as fun. Attendees of a Seongnam blind dating event in August told the New York Times (NYTthey were surprised at how quickly the evening flew by. The city has spent less than $200,000 on blind dating events this year, which could be a modest price for reversing South Korea’s demographic decline — if it works.

The NYT found “mixed” evidence that government dating assistance is leading to more marriages. A few smaller cities have tried mass blind dating over the past decade or so, and produced only one or two marriages per year, with no indication of whether those unions led to children.

Seongnam is one of the ten largest cities in South Korea, and it is part of the Seoul metropolitan area, so it might offer the best chance for government-sponsored blind dating to catch on.

The NYT found a fascinating mixture of ennui, skepticism, and cautious optimism among the young professionals of Seongnam. Some scoffed at the crass artificiality of the government running a dating service because it needs more babies, while others were excited at the thought of jump-starting their social lives after the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the singles who attended the city-sponsored events talked about launching their own impromptu blind dating parties, which sounds like the response Mayor Shin was hoping for.

South Korea’s demographic crisis is arguably the worst in the world, with the fastest drop in fertility rates ever recorded. Communist China is panicking over a fertility rate of 1.09 births per woman; South Korea’s rate stands at 0.78. Japan, which for many years was considered a fearsome case study in population decline, is hovering around 1.3 at the moment.

American demographers worry about a marriage crisis as the average rate of weddings drops to six per thousand people. In South Korea’s last nationwide study, the marriage rate was only 3.8 per thousand.

South Korea seems to suffer under the most powerful of all the economic and social trends pushing birth rates down in China and the West, all at the same time.

In November, the Associated Press (AP) spoke to young South Korean women who bluntly stated they did not want to sacrifice their careers for motherhood, while men seem extremely anxious about embarking on marriage and family in uncertain economic times:

Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they don’t feel an obligation to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a bleak job market, expensive housing, gender and social inequality, low levels of social mobility and the huge expense of raising children in a brutally competitive society. Women also complain of a persistent patriarchal culture that forces them to do much of the childcare while enduring discrimination at work.

“In a nutshell, people think our country isn’t an easy place to live,” said Lee So-Young, a population policy expert at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. “They believe their children can’t have better lives than them, and so question why they should bother to have babies.”

Many people who fail to enter good schools and land decent jobs feel they’ve become “dropouts” who “cannot be happy” even if they marry and have kids because South Korea lacks advanced social safety nets, said Choi Yoon Kyung, an expert at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education. She said South Korea failed to establish such welfare programs during its explosive economic growth in the 1960 to ’80s.

The problem — in South Korea, China, the United States, Europe, and every other industrialized nation — is that demographic decline is a catastrophic blow to systems that assume a steady or growing supply of skilled labor in each generation, plus large numbers of workers to support pensions and social safety net programs.

Students of South Korea’s demographic crisis were a bit surprised that South Korean culture did not offer more resistance to the low-fertility pressures affecting other advanced economies. More than in most other societies, South Koreans traditionally view young people who refuse to marry and have children as selfish and irresponsible. For whatever reason, all of that cultural pressure in favor of marriage and family dissipated over the last generation, leaving South Korea with the worst fertility problem on Earth.


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