Meet the 'kangaroo tribe': South Korea's 30- and 40-somethings living with mom and dad

Most parents want to protect their children from the world’s hardships, and in South Korea this often means that they will continue to have a home beyond adulthood.

“Let’s be honest. How could I make it difficult for my precious boy?” Lee Young-wook, 61, said.

His son Lee Jeong-kyu is 31 years old and still lives with his parents in the house where he grew up in Bundang, a suburb of Seoul. Her home is not a mansion, but a small apartment just big enough for the three of them.

Despite the tight space, the younger Lee has never moved out and lived alone – and he doesn’t intend to get his own place anytime soon.

He is a member of the South Korean “kangaroo tribe” – a nickname used to describe unmarried men and women who have not moved out of their parents’ homes even though they are between 30 and 40 years old. The name suggests the image of an overgrown marsupial that has not left its mother’s pouch.

According to a recent report by the South Korean National Bureau of Statistics, more than 50 percent of unmarried adults between the ages of 30 and 40 and 44 percent of adults between the ages of 40 and 44 still live with their parents.

The report, released in late March, caused a stir in the country and fueled the popular stereotype that the kangaroo tribe is made up of South Koreans who have had no success in life. The report found that 42 percent of children living with their parents are unemployed. Mainstream media coverage featured images of exhausted elderly parents accompanied by carefree, unemployed adult children.

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Despite recent media attention, experts say that in South Korea, unlike the US, it has long been the practice for children to live with their parents into adulthood.

“The phenomenon of the kangaroo tribe is hardly a modern phenomenon in South Korea, as the percentage of adults in their thirties and forties who lived with their parents in the 1980s and 2010s does not differ significantly,” said Kye Bong-oh, Professor of Sociology at Kookmin University, said.

Song Jung-Hyun, 36

While a lack of economic independence is often a factor in why children do not leave the nest, the truth is that many continue to live at home for various reasons and the kangaroo tribe phenomenon is not that simple and one-sided. to the side as is often shown in popular culture.

For some adult children, the arrangement allows them to more easily care for their aging parents while saving money for the future. Others, especially single women, cite their parents’ conservative views as a reason not to move out.

Song Jung-hyun, 36, and Nang Yoon-jin, 33, for example, have long had the financial means to live alone. Both women work as teachers at a public middle school in Seoul, one of the most sought-after careers in the country. But their parents believe that women should only move out if they get married.

“My parents think the world is a dangerous place for a woman to live alone,” said Song.

For many single people living with their parents could be suffocating. Both Song and Nang were satisfied with the arrangement, but emphasized its practical advantages.

“My mother still makes me breakfast and pays the living expenses and utility bills. Not much has changed since I was a student, other than the fact that I work now, ”said Nang. “My mom wants me to save money to prepare for marriage.”

Nang Yoon-jin, 33.

According to Song, living with her parents has also saved her time and money as she doesn’t have to worry about her own laundry or other chores. If she needs advice or wants to discuss important topics, her parents are just a stone’s throw away.

Far from taking advantage of her parents’ continued generosity, the situation is mutually beneficial.

“It’s not just me enjoying this lively arrangement. My parents also really appreciate having me with me,” she said. “As my parents get older, they find certain things very challenging – like using their smartphones and online banking. Since we live together, I help a lot. My parents often tell me that they can’t imagine living without me. “

The term “kangaroo tribe” was included in the popular lexicon in South Korea in the early 2000s, a time of high unemployment among young people when many young college graduates continued to live with their parents because they could not find work.

Between 1997 and 1998, the youth unemployment rate rose from 5.7 percent to 12.2 percent, before falling slightly to 8.1 percent in 2000, according to the national statistics office. In 2020, the youth unemployment rate in South Korea was 9 percent.

Lee Young-wook, 61, and his son Lee Jeong-kyu, who is 31 years old and still lives with his parents in the house he grew up in, in Bundang, a suburb of Seoul.

But while people used to belittle members of the kangaroo tribe for being socially and financially incompetent, Kye said the stigma is gradually subsiding.

“People are now aware that it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve economic independence these days,” he said.

Lee Chul-hee, an economics professor at Seoul National University, noted that the South Korean economy has made it increasingly difficult for the younger generation to gain financial independence and live alone.

“House prices in major cities, including Seoul, have risen sharply since 2000, while the labor market has become very unstable with an increase in temporary jobs,” Lee said. “All of these factors make it very difficult for people in their thirties and forties to move out of the home and be independent.”

Given that his son has never had a steady job, Lee Young-wook is confident that he is making the right choice so as not to pressure his son to move out.

“My wife and I want to be like a big mountain that our son can always lean on,” he said. “I won’t worry about him at all until he’s at least 35.”

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