By Kim Tong-hyung
Koreans are among the unhappiest people in the world, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study that ranked the country below Greece, Estonia and Hungary. The Korean dissatisfaction with life owes to the widening gulf between the rich and poor and an evaporating belief in social mobility, said Hansung University economist Lee Nae-chan, who analyzed the data from the Paris-based think tank.
Korea is positioned 32nd out of the 34 OECD member countries in the organization’s ``happiness index,’’ with Turkey and Mexico rounding up the bottom three in that order. The index is an improved variation of the OECD’s Better Life Index announced earlier with indicators of economic stability, inequality, poverty, trust of government and gender discrimination newly included in the measurement.
Korea ranked 26th among OECD members in the Better Life Index last year, rated positively for jobs and education, but tanking in the categories of housing, environment and work-life balance. The Better Life Index is calculated by surveying citizens across 11 separate categories _ housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance _ to piece together an overall impression of life in different nations.
In the happiness index, Korea received 4.2 points on a scale of 10, far lower than the OECD average of 6.23. Denmark topped the table with 8.09 points, followed by Australia (8.07), Norway (7.87), Austria (7.76) and Iceland (7.73).
Korea was placed in the lower-half of almost all categories, and was bottom of the table for social network stability, which reflects environmental conditions and the health of relations between individuals and communities.
Korea ranked 32nd in the category of personal health perception, 28th in generosity toward minority groups, 28th in poverty and 21st in employment and inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, according to the report.
``People in Korea are among the least happy in the OECD. This shows that satisfaction with life has more to do with just employment conditions and income levels, but also efforts to reduce inequality and extreme poverty,’’ Lee said.
The widening wealth gap, decreasing social mobility and deteriorating family finances suggest that the country’s gross national happiness will continue to sink like a stone.
A series of economic downturns in recent years only further widened the chasm between the wealthiest and the rest, and the diminishing belief in social mobility has some observers wondering whether the country is entering conditions that are conducive to a perfect storm of civil discontent.
Average Koreans continue to see their living standards deteriorate as wages fail to keep up with the rising cost of living. The working population’s share of the national income was safely above 60 percent in the early-to-mid 1990s, but fell to 58 percent in 2000 and only rose to 59.2 percent in 2010, according to government figures, while the country’s economic policies continue to put exports before consumption.
The nation’s historically-high household debt, of nearly one quadrillion won, matches an entire year’s gross domestic product (GDP), while an alarmingly large portion of working-age Koreans remain sidelined from the labor market.
The United Nations (UN) World Happiness Report announced in April had Korea listed as the 56th happiest place to live in among the 156 nations it surveyed, squeezed between wealthy Scandinavian nations like Denmark, Finland and Norway at the top of the table and Sierra Leone and Togo, at the bottom.
Even the Korea Development Institute (KDI), the country's own state-run think tank, agreed in a study last year that Korea is becoming one of the worst places to live among rich nations.
The KDI’s quality-of-life survey placed Korea 27th among the 39 industrialized nations that make up the OECD and the Group of 20, based on data for 2008. The country only managed middle rankings in the three other categories that were analyzed _ economic growth potential, infrastructure and the environment.