Most parents want to shield their children from the hardships of the world, and in South Korea, that often means continuing to provide a home for them even after they are well into adulthood.
"Let’s be honest. How could I let my precious boy have a hard time?” Lee Young-wook, 61, said.
His son, Lee Jeong-kyu, is 31 and still lives with his parents in the home in which he grew up in Bundang, a suburb of Seoul. Their home is no mansion, but rather a small apartment, just big enough for the three of them.
Despite the tight space, the younger Lee has never moved out and lived on his own before — and he doesn’t intend to get his own place anytime soon.
He is a member of South Korea’s “kangaroo tribe” — a moniker used to describe unmarried men and women who haven’t moved out of their parents’ homes, even though they are in their 30s and even 40s. The name suggests the image of an overgrown marsupial that hasn’t left its mother’s pouch.
According to a recent report from South Korea’s national statistics office, more than 50 percent of unmarried adults between the ages of 30 and 40, and 44 percent of those between 40 and 44, still live with their parents.
The report, which was released at the end of March, caused a stir in the country, fueling the popular stereotype that the kangaroo tribe is made up of South Koreans who have failed to achieve success in life. The report noted that 42 percent of children who live with their parents are unemployed, and mainstream media coverage featured images of exhausted older parents accompanied by carefree, unemployed adult children.
Despite the recent media attention, however, experts say that it’s long been common for children in South Korea to live with their parents into adulthood.
"The kangaroo tribe phenomenon is hardly a modern phenomenon in South Korea, since the percentages of adults in their 30s and 40s living with their parents in the 1980s and 2010s do not differ by much,” Kye Bong-oh, a sociology professor at Kookmin University, said.
Furthermore, while a lack of economic independence is often a factor for why children don’t leave the nest, the truth is that many continue to live at home for a variety of reasons, and the kangaroo tribe phenomenon is not as simple and one-sided as often depicted in popular culture.