Singles are signing up in droves for city-hosted blind-dating events, but some point to their inability to address real issues with family planning.
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 — fingers crossed — romance.
Before Mia Kim knew it, five hours had flown by at the mixer for 50 men and 50 women, held in a city just outside Seoul. A bar after-party then lasted until 1 a.m. But Ms. Kim, 37, who works at a software firm near Seoul, said the night still “felt too short.”
Playing matchmaker was none other than the city government.
A growing number of cities across South Korea are sponsoring blind-dating events like these for singles, desperate to prod young adults onto a track for marriage and family as the country has recorded the world’s lowest fertility rate for three years in a row.
The cities say the problem is that young people just do not want to get married — or have the babies that would follow in a country where only 2 percent of births are outside marriage.
“A negative attitude toward marriage is continuing to spread in South Korean society,” said Shin Sang-jin, the mayor of Seongnam, the city next to Seoul that recently hosted the matchmaking event. “I think it’s the local governments’ role to create the conditions for people who do want to get married to find their partners.”
Many young South Koreans, though, say that the real obstacles to raising the birthrate are the staggering costs of child care, unaffordable homes, slim job prospects and crushing work hours — and that blind-dating events do little to address these issues. Women, in particular, say they have been discouraged by the prevalence of discrimination against working mothers.
Others say that by trying to play matchmaker, the government is being too intrusive in personal reproductive choices.
But the blind-dating events have proved popular. Seongnam received more than 1,000 applications for only 100 spots for its events this month. And participants have given the mixers rave reviews.
While the proportion of people getting married has declined worldwide, it has plummeted especially far in South Korea. There were six marriages per 1,000 people in the United States in 2021, compared with 3.8 per 1,000 people in South Korea.
Fewer births have come along with that statistic in South Korea. In 2022, the country’s fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman of reproductive age — declined for the seventh straight year, to 0.78, prompting officials to scramble for ways to avert a population crisis. Policy experts say they have been insufficient, and some officials’ plans have backfired.
Even as the pool of South Koreans interested in having children shrinks, officials are expecting interest in government-sponsored matchmaking to endure. Seongnam, a city of about one million people, has allocated about $192,000 of its budget for such events, and plans to host several more this year.
“What we liked to see was the young people smiling and blushing and feeling excited,” said Kang Mi-jeong, the head of the city team tasked with addressing the low birthrate, which organized the event.
Cities in other countries with low birthrates, like China and Japan, have hosted such programs, too. In South Korea, many small cities have been sponsoring similar events for years, targeting people ages 27 to 39 who live or work in their communities.
The results have been mixed. Jinju, a southeastern city, has produced 11 couples throughout 12 years of hosting the events. In Gumi, an industrial city in central South Korea, 13 couples who met through the events have gotten married since 2016. In both cities, officials said they did not know how many children the event-matched couples have had.
The southern coastal town of Sacheon has been holding matchmaking events for the past three years. Though none has yielded any married couples, officials said not enough time had passed to produce successful matches.
Municipal matchmaking reached the greater Seoul area for the first time in Seongnam. Officials in Seoul said they were also considering hosting a blind-dating event. They had initially supported the proposal but were reviewing it because of widespread criticism on social media.
“I don’t think it would help at all to solve the shrinking birthrate,” said Jeon Seolhee, 27, a graduate student near Seoul. “For young women,” Ms. Jeon continued, “the concern is that having children would interrupt their careers.” She herself has a boyfriend, she said, but has not decided whether she wants children.
Some young South Koreans have also dismissed the project as contrived and intrusive. “It feels a bit artificial,” said Park Soomin, 30, who works at a media company in Incheon, another city outside Seoul. “It’s weird that the government is trying to intervene in personal relationships.”
Researchers who have studied South Korea’s population decline say that reduced work hours, family-friendly work culture and gender equality within the family would be more effective than matchmaking in addressing the causes of the low fertility rate, according to Jung Jae Hoon, a professor of social welfare at Seoul Women’s University.
In Seongnam, officials said the blind-dating program was not meant to be the ultimate solution to the city’s demographic crisis. But they believed the events would satisfy a social need. Out of 200 people who arrived solo, 78 people walked out as pairs, they said.
“Young men and women might not be in relationships, but they’re bored,” said Lee Myung-gil, a dating coach who helped run the dating event program in Seongnam, “and they say they’re lonely on the weekends.”
Hwang Dabin, 33, who works in real estate in Seongnam, said he was interested in attending one of the events hosted by his city because the pandemic had put a damper on his social life. He has been single for six years now, he added.
“I was excited to hear that this event was going to be in person,” he said, adding that he had matched with a woman at the event. A few weeks later, he said he was still talking to her.
Ms. Kim did not find a match. But she said she was not disappointed. Some fellow attendees from the event she went to were organizing a meet-up on their own, and she planned to go.
And whether she found someone or not, she was 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.”