Hwajin Lee
Feb 9, 2017

'Hon-sul': More Korean millennials are drinking alone

And they don't see anything wrong with that.

Drinking alone: Not un-cool.
Drinking alone: Not un-cool.

In South Korea, one out of every four households is a single dwelling, and this trend is on the rise. While the well known term hon-bab (eating alone) reflects youngsters’ preference of enjoying their private time by themselves, a new term, hon-sul (drinking alone), has more recently been added to the colloquial lexicon in Korea. Sales of alcoholic beverages in convenience stores have risen by 20 percent, and young people now often prefer to stop by a convenience store to grab a beer rather than hang out with friends in pubs.

Although it has been customary to live with one’s parents until marriage, many Koreans are now choosing to live alone to have their own space. There is certainly a meaningful shift in how Koreans perceive the idea of family. As their ideas about home and family change, many young people are spending more time alone at home than ever before. That being said, this doesn’t mean that people are becoming hikikomori—the Japanese term for people who are reclusive and suffer from overwhelming social anxiety. Rather, people are choosing to do so because they want to save money, and they also feel much more comfortable at home.

When the economy loses momentum, people tend to spend more time at home rather than going out and spending money. Korean millennials today don’t want to spend money in order to enjoy themselves, whereas traditionally they would have had to pay to go out, and then concern themselves with how they are perceived by peers, or the beverage level in their boss’s glass. This cultural shift has changed how marketers must approach them, being aware of the different spaces in their lives.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

In convenience stores, you now see whiskey being sold in small bottle formats to allow millennials to enjoy drinking in their living room rather than fancy bars—even ubiquitous beer is slowly being replaced as whiskey becomes more approachable for more Korean young people. Whiskey, which used to be considered a gift among much older drinkers, is showing up more often in young millennials’ lives, and it clearly illustrates the South Korean phenomenon of single living among youths.

Accordingly, people’s perceptions toward drinking alone have also changed positively. Korean TV drama Boys and Girls Drinking Alone, which first aired in 2016, showcases the personal stories of various young people drinking alone.

Another example, from the TVC category, shows a celebrity spending time alone with her cat, and pushes the message that drinking alone is not an un-cool or pitiful thing anymore; it’s a common thing to do now, as Koreans are pushed to find new ways to express themselves and speak up, breaking free from traditions of the past.

This phenomenon is also attributable to the fact that South Korea’s millennials are giving up dating or getting married to have a child, discouraged by a tough economic situation. Amidst political and economic turmoil, they strive to stay home and cut their spending, resulting in more time spent in their living rooms feeling comfortable and being themselves, rather than going out flirting and seeking a mate. For them, home is no longer just a place to live—it is a sanctuary that provides a sense of belonging both physically and emotionally.

Hwajin Lee is an intern at Flamingo Tokyo

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