The hotel ballroom was filled with pink balloons, the sound of love songs, and 100 singles gathering for a night of wine, getting acquainted, and hopefully finding romance. Mia Kim, a 37-year-old software firm worker near Seoul, attended this mixer for 50 men and 50 women, held in a city just outside Seoul. Five hours flew by, followed by a bar after-party that lasted until 1 a.m. However, Ms. Kim felt that the night was still too short.
Interestingly, the matchmaker for this event was the local government. Many cities across South Korea are sponsoring blind-dating events like these, driven by the country’s record-breaking low fertility rate for three consecutive years. These cities believe that the main issue lies in young people’s reluctance to get married or have children, with only 2% of births occurring outside of marriage in the country.
According to Shin Sang-jin, the mayor of Seongnam, a city near Seoul that recently hosted a matchmaking event, “A negative attitude toward marriage is continuing to spread in South Korean society. I think it’s the local governments’ role to create the conditions for people who do want to get married to find their partners.”
However, many young South Koreans argue that the real obstacles to raising the birthrate are the exorbitant costs of childcare, unaffordable housing, limited job prospects, and excessive work hours. They believe that blind-dating events do little to address these underlying issues, and women, in particular, express concerns about discrimination against working mothers.
Nevertheless, the blind-dating events have proven popular, with Seongnam receiving over 1,000 applications for only 100 spots in its recent events. While the marriage rate has declined worldwide, it has plummeted even further in South Korea, with only 3.8 marriages per 1,000 people compared to six in the United States.
The decline in marriages has also resulted in a drop in births in South Korea. In 2022, the country’s fertility rate declined for the seventh consecutive year to 0.78, prompting officials to seek ways to prevent a population crisis. Nevertheless, despite the shrinking pool of individuals interested in having children, officials expect government-sponsored matchmaking to continue. Seongnam has allocated a budget of approximately $192,000 for such events and plans to host several more this year.
Cities in other countries with low birthrates, such as China and Japan, have also organized similar programs. In South Korea, smaller cities have been sponsoring such events for years, targeting individuals aged 27 to 39 who live or work in their communities. However, the results have been mixed, with some cities producing successful matches and marriages, while others are still waiting for the outcomes.
Some young South Koreans view these government-sponsored events as contrived and intrusive, feeling that personal relationships should not be interfered with by the government. Researchers studying South Korea’s population decline suggest that reduced work hours, a family-friendly work culture, and gender equality within families would be more effective in addressing the causes of the low fertility rate.
In Seongnam, officials emphasize that blind-dating programs are not meant to be the ultimate solution to the city’s demographic crisis but rather satisfy a social need. Out of 200 people who attended the event solo, 78 pairs walked out together. The events provide opportunities for young individuals to socialize and combat loneliness.
Despite criticisms and skepticism, many attendees, like Hwang Dabin, a 33-year-old real estate worker, found hope and excitement in these events. For him, the pandemic had put a damper on his social life, and he had been single for six years. He matched with a woman at the event and was still talking to her weeks later.
In the end, finding a match or not did not disappoint Mia Kim. She planned to attend a meet-up organized by some fellow attendees from the event she went to. Whether she finds someone or not, she is not worried. “Now I’m trying to be content with just having a good time with good people,” she said. “Connections don’t happen by force.”